Saved for the Nation


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. 

The Cause of Jealousy



As mentioned a few days ago, in the mid-18th century the first Earl of Belvedere quarreled with his brother George Rochfort and so built the ‘Jealous Wall’, a sham folly that obscured the view of the younger man’s house further south on Lough Ennell. Here is the property in question, Tudenham Park, which, like Belvedere itself, is believed to have been designed by Richard Castle. However, whereas Belvedere is really a villa, this is a proper country house, of three storeys over basement with bowed projections on either side and a seven-bay entrance front, its plainness relieved by the pedimented tripartite Doric doorcase with round-headed niche above and then a circular bracketed niched below the parapet. Occupied by successive families until the early 20th century, Tudenham Park then became a hospital and was in military ownership until the 1950s when unroofed and left a shell. Some 15 or so years ago, plans were hatched to rescue the building and restore it to use but these came to nothing, so it remains the ruin seen in these pictures.


Jealous Minds



The most famous folly in Ireland, this is the Jealous Wall at Belvedere, County Westmeath. Some 180 feet long, this theatrical sham ruin was constructed around 1760 by Robert Rochfort, first Earl of Belvedere. Intended to look like the remains of an ancient castle, the three-storey wall incorporates a series of stepped towers, some of which have arched Gothic windows and, at the centre of the ground floor, a three-bay loggia. Seemingly it was built in order to block the view from Belvedere south towards Tudenham Park, a house further along Lough Ennell which had been erected some years before by the earl’s younger brother, George Rochfort. The siblings subsequently quarreled, hence the wall was put up here.


An Underutilised Resource


Designed by Richard Castle c.1740, Belvedere, County Westmeath is an exquisite villa overlooking Lough Ennell built for Robert Rochfort, later created first Earl of Belvedere. The Rochfort family had lived in Ireland since the 13th century, their primary residence being Gaulston, some five miles south-east of Belvedere. The house there, also designed by Richard Castle, was badly damaged after being burnt in 1920 during the War of Independence and later demolished. However, from around 1743 Robert Rochfort made Belvedere his main home after he had become estranged from his second wife, the Hon Mary Molesworth, who he accused of having an affair with one of his younger brothers, Arthur Rochfort. Famously, Mary Molesworth was thereafter kept a prisoner at Gaulston, never permitted to leave or to see anyone for thirty years until after her husband’s death in 1774; only once did the couple encounter each other again, by accident, and after that occasion a servant was required to walk in front of Mary Molesworth ringing a bell in order to warn Rochfort that she might be in the vicinity. Meanwhile, he pursued his younger brother for financial recompense under the legislation covering Criminal Conversation (as adultery was then known). Unable to pay, Arthur Rochfort fled the country but on his return was incarcerated in Dublin’s debtors’ prison where he died. 





Floating serene above the lake, Belvedere seems a world away from this unhappy tale. A two-storey block with semi-circular bow ends with a five-bay front, the centre three bays slightly recessed and those on either side having a Venetian window on the ground floor and a Diocletian window above. Initially the building was just one room deep but at the end of the 18th century a wing was added to the rear. The two most important reception spaces, drawing room and dining room, are at either end, with smaller rooms next to the entrance hall, behind which runs a corridor incorporating a narrow staircase leading up to four bedrooms, the service quarters being in a sunken basement. The great joy of the interior is the delicate rococo plasterwork in which putti and classical figures, surrounded by trailing garlands, shells and volutes, seem to be in the process of emerging from the ceilings. The stuccodore responsible is unknown, but the work, dating from around 1760, has been attributed to Barthelemij Cramillion. 





Following the first earl’s death in 1774, Belvedere – and indeed Gaulston – was inherited by his son George Augustus Rochfort, second Earl of Belvedere. However, when he died in 1714, he had no direct heir and so the titles became extinct and the settled estate was inherited by his sister Jane and then, after her death, by her grandson Brinsley Butler, fourth Earl of Lanesborough. He rarely visited Belvedere and on his death in 1847 it passed to a cousin, Charles Brinsley Marlay, a wealthy bachelor who invited Ninian Niven to devise plans for the walled garden and who was also responsible for laying out a series of terraces between the house and lake. On his death in 1912, the estate was inherited by Charles Howard-Bury, a noted mountaineer, explorer and botanist. Howard-Bury had been born and raised in Charleville Castle, County Offaly but seemingly had such an unhappy childhood there that he preferred to live in Belvedere and when he died in 1963, he left the place to his long-time companion, a former actor called Rex Beaumont, who would be the last private owner of the estate. In 1980, Beaumont announced his plans to leave the place and held a sale of the contents, jointly organised by Hamilton & Hamilton and Christie’s; quite a few of the lots had originally come from Charleville Castle, meaning collections from two different houses were thereby dispersed. In 1982 Beaumont sold the house and surrounding parkland to the local authority, which has managed the place ever since. While much money was spent on restoring Belvedere at the time, 40 years have now passed and the house is looking tired and in need of attention, little having changed there since its acquisition by the county council. The surrounding demesne is extremely popular with local families and much frequented, but Belvedere itself appears an under-utilised resource; at the moment, only a handful of the rooms are even open to the public, with much of it closed up. It’s time fresh consideration, and attention, was given to one of Ireland’s most charming 18th century villas. 

Crazy Wonderful


Two doorcases in the entrance hall of Bellinter, County Meath, a house dating from c.1750 and designed by Richard Castle for John Preston. The two doors to the front of the room have the heaving lugging typical of this period but then atop a rectangular panel have caps studded with clusters of guttae. Meanwhile, the doorcase to the rear of the space has clearly been altered, probably in the early 19th century, but must always have concluded at a lower point in order to accommodate the plaster armory above. It’s all rather daft and completely wonderful.

Drumcondra Urns



In a small garden to the rear of Drumcondra House (now part of Dublin City University) can be found three much-weathered stone urns. Originally they stood on the parapet of the building’s south-facing front, thought to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce: the east-facing Baroque facade of the same property has long been attributed to Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (see An Italian in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). Photographs of Drumcondra House from the late 19th/early 20th centuries, when it as All Hallows College (a training centre for Roman Catholic priests) show the urns still in situ, one in the centre and one at either end. At some date they were taken down, probably because of their condition but it is still possible to see their pedestals on top of the building.


Where The Streets Have No Shame


Last January Drogheda, County Louth was named one of the dirtiest towns in Ireland in the annual Irish Business Against Litter report – placed 39 out of 40 locations surveyed, only Dublin’s north inner city was judged to be even filthier. Although obviously not an achievement worth celebrating, this information will come as no surprise to anyone who has been visiting Drogheda over recent years and watched the place sink further and further into degradation. In 1993, the Pevsner Guide to this part of the country, written by Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey, observed that ‘As is too often the case, the 20th century has not been kind to Drogheda. However, the problems of the town lie not so much in the lack of quality in its new architecture as in the neglect and lack of concern for its historic buildings.’ That was almost 30 years ago: the situation has only grown worse over the intervening decades. 






In contrast to its shameful present, Drogheda has a proud past: at the end of the 17th century, one visitor thought it a handsome, clean town ‘and the best I have seen in Ireland.’ Its location at the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea (the name Drogheda derives from Droichead Átha, meaning Bridge of the Ford) indicates strategic importance and from the Viking period onwards there was an important settlement here. In the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, lived here rather than in his titular seat, and six national parliaments were convened in the town between 1441 and 1494. A terrible disaster befell Drogheda in 1649 when it was captured and ransacked by members of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, but by the beginning of the following century it was once again booming and many of the town’s finest buildings were erected over the next 100 years. Commercial decline had already begun by the middle of the 19th century. When Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term still appropriate 180 years later. Over the past century, with improved transport links, not just the railway but even more the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin, which is less than 35 miles away, has only added to its problems. 






There are many reasons why Drogheda should no longer enjoy the same prosperity as was once the case, but no reason whatsoever why the town should have been allowed to become such a sad, neglected, shabby mess. Everywhere one turns, there are empty buildings falling into ruin, historic properties which, in other countries, would be repaired and put back into use. Instead, no apparent effort has been made to preserve Drogheda’s outstanding architectural heritage. What could, for example, be a significant tourist destination – and therefore a source of revenue for the local community – is being wilfully ignored. At the moment, no visitor coming to Ireland could be directed to Drogheda, except to see how not to care for the urban environment. The local authority, Louth County Council, seems supremely indifferent to the condition of the town, showing absolutely no sense of pride in what should be one of the region’s finest assets. If there’s no sense of pride, there’s clearly no sense of shame either. Otherwise this situation would not be allowed to continue. Further words are redundant: the pictures shown today are sufficiently eloquent. Welcome to Drogheda, where the streets have no shame. 

An Even Grander Gateway


The very grand entrance into what appears to have been the yard attached to an adjacent house in the little village of Rostellan, County Cork. Seemingly dating from the mid-19th century, the high rubble stone walls are broken up by limestone ashlar pilasters and framed rectangular panels, while the centre is dominated by a large carriage entrance set into a Grecian-Revival arch. It all seems rather more substantial than would be expected on such a site: perhaps originally constructed for the nearby – but now lost – Rostellan Castle? (See Final Traces « The Irish Aesthete). During the spring/summer months, the yard operates as a local coffee and chocolate shop.

 

A Grand Gateway


One of a number of gateways providing access to the four-acre walled garden at Barmeath Castle, County Louth. A map dating from the mid-1770s and drawn up by the surveyor Charles Frizell shows this area of the demesne to be a shrubbery with no evidence of enclosure, indicating the walled garden, like so many others, was only created in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Unusually, all the walls are lined in brick, whereas, as a rule, it was only the south-facing wall that received this treatment since brick retains the heat longer than does stone. The entrances are also distinguished by being given rather grand, pedimented, breakfront gateways. The walled garden here has been restored in recent years and is now open to the public. Readers with no interest in matters horticultural should be warned that the Irish Aesthete is at present curating an exhibition devoted to the history of the Irish country house garden (opening at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House in Dublin on May 19th) and therefore this subject is likely to feature heavily in the coming weeks.

A Shoddy Welcome




As many readers will be aware, a splendid book was recently published on one of Ireland’s finest country houses, Townley Hall, County Louth (see Of the Highest Standard « The Irish Aesthete). The building and immediate surroundings have been meticulously maintained by its current custodians but the same cannot be said for the organisation responsible for the wider grounds, including the entrance. Both the gates and the lodge here were, like the house itself, designed by Francis Johnston and ought therefore to be kept in good condition. The photographs above show their state in January, and those below in April: already in poor shape, over those intervening months the gate posts have become even more dilapidated and unless there is due intervention, their future has to be in doubt. The owner in this instance is a state body, Coillte which has an almost unrivalled reputation for neglecting historic buildings supposed to be in its care – cf. Donadea Castle, County Kildare (Another Blot on the Landscape « The Irish Aesthete), Rockingham, County Roscommon (Differing Fates I « The Irish Aesthete) and many other sites. If Coillte cannot look after such properties – and clearly it can’t – then the organisation should hand over responsibility for their maintenance to another body which will show more concern for the protection of our national heritage. It’s worth pointing out that the relevant local authority, Louth County Council, ought by now to have intervened and instructed Coillte to restore these gateposts: in their present state, they provide a very shoddy welcome to Townley Hall and its woodlands.