The entrance to Annesbrook, County Meath. The design of the main house with its towering Ionic portico and gothick dining chamber in the north wing is sometimes attributed to Francis Johnston (see When Royalty Comes to Call, October 12th 2015). Perhaps he was also responsible for this building which might also have been constructed in anticipation of a visit by George IV in 1821. With the character of a miniature castle, it holds just two rooms, a kitchen/living area on one side of the arch and a sleeping chamber on the other.
Buried in the midst of trees, the remains of a neo-classical gate lodge in County Fermanagh. Likely dating from the early 19th century, its entrance at the top of a short flight of steps features a fine Tuscan portico flanked by windows each set within a shallow arched niche. Although almost beyond redemption (the rear wall has bulged out and looks on the verge of collapse), the building’s quality of stonework for key features, together with an evident consideration of the overall design, is testament to the care once paid even to such modest dwellings.
The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has often been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, but the words’ innate fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that no one can say for certain who actually first used them. History is written as often by losers, and by those who played no role in any supposed conflict. And in the present age of alternative truths, history is even more vulnerable to prejudice and selective memory. Irish history is as replete as any other with forgotten or overlooked narratives, usually laid aside because they do not fit into the preferred version. It is easier to propose a clear linear story than one in which there are sundry twists and diversions diverting attention away from the central tale. So it is that visitors to the Castlecomer Discovery Park in County Kilkenny, while they are given the opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in this region, will hear no mention of a remarkable woman who a century ago lived here as the mine manager’s wife. Despite her subsequent achievements and global fame, she does not fit comfortably into the story being told and has therefore been omitted (to the extent that staff in the Discovery Park are even unfamiliar with her name). That woman was Constance Spry.
In 2004 vacuum-cleaner inventor James Dyson resigned as chairman of London’s Design Museum when the institution’s then-director Alice Rawsthorne proposed organising an exhibition dedicated to Constance Spry, whose career was dismissed by one of the museum’s founders, Terence Conran, as nothing more than “high-society mimsiness”. These glib verdicts say more about the male prejudices of Dyson and Conran than they do about Spry and her considerable achievements, which were twofold. In the first place she revolutionised flower arranging which, while undoubtedly a minor art, is nevertheless one that impinges on all our lives, often for the better. Spry spurned the stiff and excessively formal style of floral decoration that predominated in her youth and replaced it with a looser approach, recognising every plant, whether cultivated or wild, had potential; typically for a London wedding in 1938 she filled the church with vases holding nothing but cow parsley. (Incidentally, in the wake of Conran’s criticism it was pointed out by the Guardian’s James Fenton that the decorative tricks found in every Conran store – a bundle of twigs in a glass vase, say, or an amusing confection of ornamental cabbages – were all first found in Spry’s work.) Furthermore, as an ardent gardener she helped to save many rare plants, especially varieties of old roses, from potential extinction: tellingly when rose specialist David Austin created his first variety in 1961 he named it ‘Constance Spry.’
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives and run their own businesses. In this respect she already had the example of her father, a remarkable man called George Fletcher, who left school at the age of 14 with minimal qualifications and no social advantages but, thanks to his appreciation of the benefits of education, finished by being head of technical instruction in early 20th-century Ireland (but like his offspring has now been almost entirely forgotten). His only daughter Constance likewise became involved in education, employed by the government in the early 1900s to travel throughout this country lecturing on the advantages of sound healthcare. It was in this capacity that she came to Castlecomer, staying for two weeks to improve the condition of the local miners. And while in the town, she also first met and soon after married the mine manager James Heppell Marr.
Constance Spry lived in the Castlecomer region for six years and gave birth here to her only child before the marriage to Marr broke down and she moved away. A woman who 100 years ago had the courage to leave her husband and search for employment to support an infant son: there was nothing mimsy in Spry’s background or character. She started to arrange flowers professionally in response to demand for her services, and her achievement in this field was entirely unplanned, a coincidence of circumstances to which she responded with avidity. Here is where her significance lies: as one of a number of pioneering women who in the early part of the last century demonstrated it was feasible for members of their sex to develop and run successful businesses. During the same period, for example, Syrie Maugham established an interior-design company of international renown, while soon afterwards Rosemary Hume founded the original Cordon Bleu school of cookery; both women became friends and associates of Spry. The characteristic she shared with them was an ability to spot the potential in a supposedly mundane skill and transform it into a viable commercial concern. Spry, Maugham, Hume et al had no professional predecessors from whom to learn, the expectation being that, like their mothers before them, they would marry and raise children. But perforce breaking free from the constraints of their upbringing, they had the ability to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.
Today’s photographs show what remains of a lodge beside gates opposite Castlecomer Discovery Park. These gates mark the entrance to the now-lost Castlecomer Park, permitted to fall into ruin before being demolished in 1975. It was here that Constance Spry first stayed when she came to the town, the house’s residents being also owners of the local coal mine for some three centuries. The lodge and gates were designed by Dublin architect George Francis Beckett in 1912-13, during the period when Constance Spry was here. More recently the building has been gutted by fire and there is every likelihood it will soon be as little remembered as the exceptional woman who came to the area in 1910 in order to improve the health of the local coal miners.
The entrance gates to the former Rockbrook estate in County Westmeath. Dating from c.1780 the adjacent lodge has a charming concave exterior wall, pedimented and with one arched window set off-centre. The building behind is ruinous, as is the main late 18th century house formerly occupied by the Isdell family.
The south entrance to Ballyanne, County Wexford, a house built c.1790 for Henry Houghton. It was demolished in 1943 but this wide gatescreen indicates what has been lost. Six rusticated pillars are linked by iron railings and gateposts, while at either end is a matching porters’ lodge, of which now only the front elevations survive, their central windows (now blocked up) flanked by arched niches. Ballyanne’s entrance rightly figures in J.A.K. Dean’s newly published gazetteer The Gate Lodges of Leinster, a remarkable piece of research that appears over twenty years after the same author’s similar work devoted to Ulster’s lodges. This one runs to 416 pages and contains entries for no less than 4,285 buildings: even two centuries ago the profusion of gate lodges in Ireland was noted by visitors (some properties having six or more entrances, each of which had to be manned). Opening with a history of the gate lodge in this part of the country, the text then proceeds county by county, each entry following in alphabetical order with a full historical and architectural account, and a statement of current condition (where still standing).
Dean’s meticulously researched text is complemented by a profusion of illustrations including photographs and architectural drawings, and makes for an engrossing read. On the other hand, the book inspires a certain sense of melancholy, since so many of these miniature treasures have either been demolished (the fate, Dean estimates, of half of all built since the mid-18th century) or left to fall into decay. Their diminutive size can make them unattractive for modern permanent accommodation although, as the Irish Landmark Trust (and its English equivalent) has shown, they can be converted to serve as successful holiday lets. Furthermore, they have often been overlooked by architectural historians whose attention was focussed on what lay at the end of the avenue. But if their interiors were often relatively functional, much care was expended on their exterior appearance, since the lodge served as a statement of the estate owner’s status, and the first point of contact for visitors to the area.
This is a wonderful labour of love, and deserves to be applauded (and rewarded with abundant sales over the coming weeks). The only drawback is that it leaves one hankering for the companion volumes to Connacht and Munster…
‘From Artramont, I proceeded to the castle of Carrick, by Edmond, the seat of Mr. Bell, Mount Anna, that of Colonel Hudson, and Sanders’-court, the once respectable residence of the late Earl of Arran. When I arrived within view of the splendid arch and lodges, which, on an elevated position above the public road, form a grand outpost to this concern, and through which, though never carried into effect, an approach was meditated by the late Earl, my mind became unexpectedly introduced into a train of reflection on the ruinous consequences to this country, of that absentee system, which since our union with England has become so much the fashion. This splendid portal, with the degraded state of the mansion-house and offices, (now wholly deserted by the proprietor and his family,) and which form a striking contrast to each other, were well calculated to impress this subject upon the mind…I felt my heart impelled by a sentiment of sympathy; a feeling not likely to be obliterated, by the neglected and ruinous aspect of Sanders’-court, no longer the seat of nobility, nor of that munificence and national hospitality of which it was so eminently remarkable.’ From A. Atkinson’s The Irish Tourist (1815).
Saunderscourt, County Wexford derives its name from Colonel Robert Saunders who came to Ireland with Oliver Cromwell and was apppointed Governor of Kinsale, County Cork. However, he is said to have quarreled with Cromwell and having supported the restoration of Charles II was allowed to keep his grant of 3,700 acres in Wexford. In 1730 the Colonel’s great-granddaughter Jane Saunders, an only child, married Arthur Gore, later first Earl of Arran and thus Saunderscourt passed into the ownership of this family. It was the couple’s son, the second Earl of Arran whose decease (in 1809) was lamented by Atkinson since his heir abandoned the place which soon fell into ruin, as described above. Interest in the estate revived following the succession of the fourth earl in 1837, after which work was undertaken on the demesne by noted landscape gardener James Fraser. However, eventually Saunderscourt was sold c.1860 to an Arthur Giles who undertook restoration work on the main house. Believed to date from the second half of the 18th century, this was a two-storey, seven-bay property described following its refurbishment as being ‘a fine courtly building of considerable extent that displays its rich and handsome façade consisting of a centre and characteristic wings to the south-west.’ Saunderscourt changed hands again before the end of the 19th century and the main house was soon after demolished so that no trace of it remains today.
What survives at Saunderscourt is the ‘splendid arch’ and adjacent lodges that so moved Atkinson to eloquent reflection in 1815. Tucked down a quiet country road, this building appears to have been constructed during the time of the second Earl of Arran and, as is mentioned, was intended to be the start of a new approach to the house but this never happened. Thus it would seem always to have stood in glorious isolation, a monument to unrealised ambition. Attributed recently to Waterford architect John Roberts (who certainly worked in the area on a number of properties), the entrance, as can be seen, consists of a towering triumphal arch with the same treatment to both front and rear: engaged Tuscan columns support a triangular pediment, while a semicircular arch with moulded architrave is supported on Tuscan piers. This all executed in limestone although the greater part of the structure is of brick. The same material is also used for the single-storey quadrants and lodges. The former, which each have a pair of round-headed niches, are interesting because – like the arch itself – they are identical on either side. The effect is to create concave spaces which acted as yards for the lodges, with their Gibbsian door- and windowcases in limestone. The whole effect is tremendously grand, although somewhat incongruous in its present setting, shared with a series of cow sheds. The Saunderscourt arch has of late benefitted from attention paid to its welfare by the Irish Landmark Trust but that organisation’s limited resources have meant work has not progressed beyond stabilization and certain key repairs, particularly to roofs and drainage. Provided the necessary funds are forthcoming, no doubt further remediation will be undertaken and the property fully restored so that it can begin generating an income (and thereby better secure its future).