A View to Die For


The memorial shown here is situated
on rising ground at Brittas, County Meath and is inscribed as follows:Beneath this Monument Are interred the remains of Thomas BLIGH, Lieutenant General of his Majesty’s  forces. General of horse at the battles of Dettinggen, Val, Fontenoy and Melle. And the commander in chief of British Troops at Cherburg, Who after spending many years In the service of his country with unwearied application Retired to a private life Therein to prepare his old age For a change to a better state And to enjoy with unspeakable comfort The hopes of a happy immortality. Born A.D. 1695 Died Aug. the 17th, 1775 Aged 80 years.’ To one side of the monument are planted a series of trees ranked in the same formation as were the general’s troops during one of his campaigns. To the other the land drops away to offer a view of the house where he retired to enjoy the aforementioned private life and to prepare for ‘a happy immortality.’

Unravelling the Mysteries


Described over a century ago as the finest early Georgian house in this part of the country, Florence Court, County Fermanagh epitomizes the challenges facing anyone who tries to understand the evolution of the Irish architecture. In particular, it raises the two key questions that come up time and again in this field? When was it built? And who was responsible for the design? In the case of Florence Court, the answer to the first question appears to be that the building was developed over a period of time and to the second that a number of parties were involved. But, as will be made apparent, precise dates and names remain maddeningly elusive.





Florence Court was built for the Cole family, the first of whom, Sir William Cole was a professional soldier who arrived in Ireland in 1601 and having acquired large tracts of land in Fermanagh, based himself in Enniskillen Castle. Successive generations of Coles prospered and by the early 18th century it was clear a proper country estate was required, especially as John Cole – who appears to have been responsible for initiating the construction of Florence Court – served as a member of parliament for the area. The house’s name derives from that of the same John Cole’s wife, a Cornish heiress called Florence Wrey. Their son, also John Cole, was raised to the peerage in 1760 as Lord Mountflorence, and in turn his elder son William Willoughby Cole was created first Viscount Enniskillen in 1776 and finally Earl of Enniskillen in 1789. The house remained in the family’s ownership until 1953 when it passed into the care of the National Trust. Two years later a fire badly damaged the property, which was subsequently restored. It is possible that material relating to the building’s evolution was lost on that occasion, since no documentation on the subject survives. Hence when it comes to dates and architects, conjecture must take the place of knowledge.





An anonymous manuscript dating from 1718 makes reference to a ‘very costly and sumptuous building’ which John Cole was then building at Florence Court. However, it is not known how much of this work was accomplished before his death in 1726. His son, the future Lord Mountflorence is likely to have been responsible for overseeing the construction of the present central block. A demesne map drawn up the year after his death in 1767 includes an elevation of the house’s façade which on the top floor had a large framed oculus window on the top floor. This feature is frequently found in buildings designed by Richard Castle, giving rise to speculation that he was responsible for Florence Court. It is possible such was the case, since in the late 1720s Castle was drawing up designs for Castle Hume on the other side of Enniskillen  (for more on this, see A Glimpse of the Past, August 22nd 2016).
Furthermore, in discussions of the house’s evolution it has been noted that Castle subsequently went on to design Hazlewood, County Sligo the owner of which, Owen Wynne, was associated with John Cole in the development of a road between Enniskillen and Sligo. At least some of the interiors of the main house do look to be early 18
th century (the ground floor library is a particularly curious room, featuring stylistic elements from a number of different periods). But here, as was so often the case, aspiration exceeded income and the Florence Court of c.1730 was internally a relatively plain affair.





In August 1758 Mrs Delany met the future first Earl of Enniskillen freshly returned from a Grand Tour and observed ‘Mr Cole ((£5,000 a year and just come from abroad), a pretty, well-behaved young man’. While his annual income is likely to have exaggerated, nevertheless the Coles did come into sufficient funds to embark on a further programme of work at Florence Court. Some of this seems to have derived from a legacy following the death without direct heirs of Sir Arthur Cole, Lord Ranelagh but more likely the greater part of the money was received thanks to the periodic sale of two seats in the House of Commons for the borough of Enniskillen which the Coles then controlled: each of these could have raised as much as £1,500-£2,000 at each election. Whatever the source, fresh supplies of money meant first the interiors of the main reception rooms, the staircase and the first-floor ‘Venetian Room’ and then at a slightly later date single storey wings concluding in pavilions were added on either side of the house. On the basis of similarities with Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny and Kilshannig, County Cork these external additions have long been attributed to the architect and engineer Davis Ducart; once again, no documentary evidence exists to tie him directly to the work so one must depend on informed guesswork. The façade was presumably altered at the same time: note how the top-floor oculus shown in the 1767 drawing has gone, replaced by a pedimented niche that complements those immediately below. The alterations it has undergone means that as an object of study Florence Court is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It tantalizes with hints but never reveals the whole story. Perhaps one day more information will turn up but for the present speculation and surmise must suffice.

Laid Out with Great Taste


Pastoral scene with country house as backdrop: Ardbraccan, County Meath. The central block dates from the 1770s when it was constructed for the then-Bishop of Meath, Henry Maxwell. Visiting the place two centuries ago, the English agronomist and politician John Christian Curwen wrote that Ardbraccan ‘is a modern edifice, erected by the former Bishop on a plan of the late Dr Beaufort; which unites much internal comfort with great external beauty and simple elegance, well designed and appropriated for the residence of so considerable a dignitary of the church. The grounds are laid out with great taste, and the luxuriant growth of the trees and shrubs affords incontestable evidence of the fertility of the soil.’



Open to All


When Laurence Gilson died in London in February 1810 he left a will drawn up the previous year leaving all his property to be vested in a trust for the establishment of a school in his native town of Oldcastle, County Meath. In addition, Gilson ‘declared his desire that all the children of the said parish, being natives thereof, should be admitted thereto, to whatever denomination they might belong, and he further expressed his desire that Protestants as well as Roman Catholics should be equally eligible to be appointed masters of the said School, according to their respective merits.’ The Gilson Endowed School opened thirteen years later, its design attributed to C.R. Cockerell who was then working on plans for Loughcrew House outside the town. A neo-classical variant on the Palladian model, the central house of two storeys over raised basement and five bays provided accommodation for the staff (as well as boardroom and hall), while classrooms for boys and girls were in the wings. Although the buildings now look in need of a little attention, the Gilson Endowed School continues to operate according to its founder’s wishes.

At the Close of Day


Evening at Ballymaloe, County Cork. The oldest part of the building is a mid-fifteenth century tower house constructed by the FitzGeralds of Imokilly: this was enlarged in 1602 by Sir John FitzEdmund FitzGerald. The property was later briefly occupied by William Penn when he was sent to manage his father’s estates in the area, after which it was owned by the first Earl of Orrery. The house was much enlarged on two occasions in the 18th century to assume its present appearance. It also regularly changed hands over several hundred years until being bought by the Allen family who since 1964 have run the place as a restaurant and country house hotel.

Last Vestiges


The granite portico of Oaklands, County Wexford. This late Georgian house is associated with the Tyndall family, the last of whom died in 1957: soon afterwards Oaklands was gutted by fire and pulled down. This is all that remains to indicate its appearance, although large blocks of cut stone litter the surrounding area. A bungalow has been built on the site.

Recording the Past


In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’  Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.




As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades.
  While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.




Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.



While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.