Situated in a Widely Extended Demesne

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‘Through hills at the foot of Bessy Bell …we come to Baronscourt, Lord Abercorn’s magnificent seat….the great number of fine oaks and three long narrow lakes which ornament this place give it an air of great grandeur.’
Rev. Daniel Beaufort (1786)

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‘In the vicinity is Baronscourt, the seat of the Marquess of Abercorn, a stately mansion, situated in a widely extended demesne, combining much romantic and beautiful scenery, embellished with three spacious lakes, and enriched with fine timber.’
Samuel Lewis (1837)

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A Glimpse of the Past

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Around 1610 Sir John Hume, a younger son of a Scottish border landowner, came to Ireland and settled in County Fermanagh where both he and his brother Alexander were granted plots of land. Alexander Hume subsequently sold his share to Sir John who added further acreage to have become the largest holder of land in this part of the country by the time of his death in 1639. Before that date he built ‘a fair strong castle’ at Tully on the edge of Lower Lough Erne: it was attacked and burnt by the Maguires in Christmas 1641 and thereafter has remained a ruin. Nevertheless the Humes held onto their property, which passed to Sir John’s son George, created a baronet in 1671. He in turn was succeeded by his son, another Sir John Hume who further added to the size of his estate by marrying Sidney, daughter and co-heiress of James Hamilton, of Manorhamilton, County Leitrim. Thus their only son, Sir Gustavus Hume was an exceedingly wealthy man when around 1728 he decided to embark on building a new residence for himself in County Fermanagh.

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The architect Sir Gustavus Hume chose to design his new house is today known as Richard Castle, although thanks to research by Loreto Calderón and Konrad Dechant published in 2010 we now know his real name was David Richardo. Raised in Dresden where his father worked for the Elector of Saxony, he had moved first to England before coming to this country where one of his earliest jobs was working on engineering projects, notably the building of the Newry Canal: overseen by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce this was the first inland navigation on these islands. It must be presumed that Hume, who was associated with the Newry Canal project, had met Castle in England and invited him to Ireland. Whatever the exact details, Castle Hume – as the new house was named – is deemed to have been Castle’s first architectural project here. Unfortunately we do not know what the main building looked like since it has long since disappeared. When Sir Gustavus Hume died in 1731, his estates were divided between two daughters, one of whom Mary married Nicholas Loftus, future first Earl of Ely, whose family already owned property elsewhere. As a result, Castle Hume seems to have been little used. An estate map of 1768 shows a relatively small classical structure of three storeys with a pedimented centre and sculptures along the roof balustrade. When the Rev Richard Twiss visited the region in 1775, it was still the most ‘conspicuous’ seat adorning Lough Erne and the following year Arthur Young exclaimed, ‘What a spot to build on and form a retreat from the business and anxiety of the world.’ The building is sometimes reported to have been a ruin by 1793, but this seems unlikely as it was let from c.1791 to 1797 to Hugh Montgomery of Derrygonnelly, and early in the following century the landscape architect John Sutherland, a follower of ‘Capability’ Brown, worked on the grounds. It is believed that in the 1830s when the second Marquess of Ely decided to build a residence on a lakeside promontory a couple of miles away, he used the cut-stone from Castle Hume for this purpose, leading to the obliteration of Castle’s domestic work.

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The main block of Castle Hume may be gone but parts of the stable yard, seen here (photographed on a very wet evening) still remain to provide tantalising hints of what has been lost. Two blocks face each other across a wide courtyard, one of them L-shaped and containing the stables with elliptical vaulted ceilings supported by an arcade of granite Tuscan columns resting on round drums. Of two storeys, the exterior of both buildings is of harled brick with cut limestone employed for the massive window- and doorcases, as well as in the first-floor oculi. The blocks are linked by a single-storey range in cut-stone which appears to be of later date. So too most likely is the only other structure of the original Castle Hume estate: an octagonal dovecote located on rising ground nearby. Topped by a lantern with openings through which birds could enter, the dovecote’s brick interior features hundreds of small square nesting spaces. This building has recently been restored by the present owners of Castle Hume and now looks much as it would have done when first constructed more than 250 years ago. Together with the stables, it provides a glimpse into the past, a suggestion of the lakeside property that once so enchanted both Twiss and Young.

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A Sick Building

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Last Monday, the Irish Times published a feature on the threatened demolition of a former Church of Ireland primary school in Glasthule, County Dublin: an application has been lodged with the local authority for the present building to be replaced by four so-called ‘townhouses.’ Objections have been raised to this plan on the grounds that humanitarian and Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement may have attended the school, thereby linking it to the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year. However on Wednesday the same newspaper carried a letter from one of Casement’s biographers outlining the peripatetic nature of his upbringing and thus confuting the notion that he had ever been educated in the Glasthule establishment.
Above is an image of the former County Meath Infirmary on Bridge Street, Navan. A decade younger than the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, it dates from the mid-18th century, at which time, according to a subsequent account, ‘The gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Navan, from their observation of the various calamities and miseries the poor undergo,for want of proper and timely assistance in their several maladies and disorders, did propose to found a County Hospital. Accordingly a subscription was opened at an Assembly at Navan, the first of October 1753; and soon after the Foundation of a County Hospital was laid on a convenient and healthy situation, on an eminence at the entrance into the town.’ A plaque above the main entrance carries the date 1754 and a quotation from St Mark’s Gospel: ‘I was sick and you visited me.’
A supposedly protected structure the seven-bay, three storey County Infirmary (its premises extended in the 19th century) continued to serve the locality until finally closed in September 2010. The building stood vacant before finally being sold three years later. It has remained empty and visibly deteriorating ever since. As can be seen, several of the windows are now broken, there are slates missing from the roof and the fabric is clearly suffering. Designed to tend the sick, now the building itself is in need of care. Unlike the former school premises in Glasthule, the County Infirmary can claim no connection with someone famous (although a plaque linking it with the 1916 Rising has recently been placed on the outside wall). Perhaps for this reason there appears to be little public concern over its present state and future survival. Yet in a town which retains precious few historic buildings of any merit, this is an important link to the past and to the generous philanthropists who funded its construction and medical endeavours. Is it enough to believe we should only preserve our architectural heritage provided there is a link, however putative or fanciful, to dead patriots (and even that has too often proven an insufficient safeguard)? Should we not value a building on its own merits, whether as a tangible part of our history, as an important legacy to pass on to the next generation or even – heretical thought – due to inherent aesthetic excellence? Both the Glasthule schoolhouse and the County Infirmary in Navan, together with thousands of other properties across the country, need to be considered on all these terms and not just because someone now held in esteem may or may not once have crossed their thresholds.

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Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Green Street Debtors' Prison
Located in the centre of north Dublin, the debtors’ prison on Green Street was built in 1794 and offers a fascinating insight into the city’s history. Constructed from granite and limestone and U-shaped in form, it rises three storeys over basement. The prison contained thirty-three cells, or rooms, available either furnished or unfurnished. These were occupied by debtors until they had paid off all outstanding obligations, but despite its appearance conditions in the building were not necessarily grim. Inmates often brought in their own food, and were permitted visitors: in effect, the place served as a kind of hotel from which guests were not allowed to leave. It was later used as a police barracks and accommodation for police widows.
At one time threatened with demolition (for one of the road widening schemes with which the city council was for a while obsessed) in the 1990s the former prison was leased by the Office of Public Works to a charitable body, the Green Street Trust, which undertook a considerable amount of restoration work with the intention of ensuring community use for the property. Unfortunately this imaginative initiative stalled due to want of funds and the prison was returned to the OPW: since then it has stood empty and the building has fallen into a vulnerable state (it now features on An Taisce’s Buildings at Risk register).
Last Monday, the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works went to court to secure the removal from the debtors’ prison of a group of squatters who had moved into the property, the plaintiffs arguing the site was not safe. Interestingly there appears to have been no discussion of how or why the building had become unsafe, nor indeed which public bodies were responsible for its upkeep (not least ensuring it could not be accessed by unauthorised persons). Presumably had the property been kept both safe and secure, the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works would not have needed to go to court (and presumably would not have had to pay lawyers’ fees). The debtors’ prison is listed by Dublin City Council as a protected structure: this seems not to have prevented it falling into the present poor condition. If the state does not abide by its own legislation regarding the care of protected structures, why should private individuals and companies be expected to behave any better towards historic buildings in their possession?
Photograph by Ciarán Cuffe.

Ice Ice Baby

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Located on a side road adjacent to the river Blackwater outside Lismore, County Waterford is this pair of ice houses dating from the end of the 18th century. They were built not to serve the nearby castle but by a local family, the Foleys who operated a fishery business in the area and wanted to preserve their catches. On a piece of flat land, channels were dug through which water from the river would enter and then be held by sluice gates while it froze during the winter: the resultant ice was then moved into these two round buildings which seemingly continued to serve this purpose well into the last century. The original entrance porch was to the rear, through which further doors gave admittance to each house, each measuring 6.65 metres in diameter and 4.5 metres to the top of the dome: the arched entrance in the southern chamber (next to the road) was only created a few years ago by the local authority. The cracks in the northern chamber must be a cause of concern.

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Pagan and Christian

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Hidden inside an otherwise mediocre building in the County Louth can be found this remarkable neo-classical ceiling. It is the surviving element of the Oriel Temple, an elaborate pavilion erected in the late 1770s by John Foster, last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons whose main residence was in nearby Collon. Within the space of a shallow eliptical vault is an extravaganza of ribbon garlands, urns, lutes and shells, all contained within a tightly disciplined arrangement. Tradition assigns the design of the building to James Wyatt and the stuccowork to Charles Thorp. Originally the walls of this chamber were decorated with a series of grisaille paintings on pagan subjects by Peter de Gree (these were later removed to Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. The Fosters subsequently expanded the Oriel Temple so that it became one room of a larger residence. Since 1938 the site has been occupied by Cistercian monks, this space serving as the sanctuary of their church.

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Too Large for Modern Rural Life

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During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.

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Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.

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It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.

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