The entrance gateway to the now-demolished Lissadorn, County Roscommon. Extant photographs show this to have been a fine house of three bays and three storeys over raised basement, possibly late 18th or early 19th century in construction. The design of this neoclassical triple archway, thought to date from c.1825, has been attributed to the Roscommon architect Richard Richards, not least because at that time he was working at Mount Talbot, some 25 miles to the south. The unfortunate history of that house has already been told (See An Unhappy Tale « The Irish Aesthete), and, as if to confirm that Richards designed the Lissadorn entrance, it is almost identical to that at Mount Talbot, the only difference being that the former lacks the keystones seen in the latter’s arches.
Bloomville, County Offaly is a particularly charming late 18th century gentleman farmer’s residence, of two storeys and five bays with a somewhat anachronistic Gibbsian door at its centre. The original block is just one room deep but a three-bay extension to the rear provides additional accommodation, as do single storey wings on either side: that to the east contains a drawing room with generous bow window and conical roof.
Twenty years ago this week, the contents of Lissadell, County Sligo were offered for sale at auction. The importance of accumulated house contents is insufficiently appreciated in this country. Often spanning hundreds of years of occupation by the same family, they represent changes in taste, and in affluence, not just of a particular property’s owners, but of the entire country. They inform our knowledge of Ireland’s history through both good times and bad, and provide enlightenment about how our forebears, of whatever status, lived. Accordingly, their dispersal represents the dissipation of knowledge, leaving us all less well-informed and thereby poorer. In the case of Lissadell, the house, and its predecessor, had been home to generations of the same family, among whom was the revolutionary politician Constance Markievicz. Her association with the building, along with that of many other distinguished figures in Irish history, led to a widespread public campaign for the property and surrounding estate to be bought by the state. As has been so often the case, before and since, this did not happen, and accordingly Lissadell’s contents were auctioned. One of the key losses from this event was a collection of furniture specifically commissioned by an earlier owner, Sir Robert Gore-Booth, for the house. Dating from the 1830s, these pieces were representative of taste in Ireland at the time and were believed to have been made by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton. Until the auction, Lissadell was the only house in Ireland to retain its original furniture by this company, so the dispersal was much to be regretted. The items’ importance can be gauged by the fact that most of the lots exceeded their estimates: a rosewood writing table, for example, which was expected to make €8,000-€10,000, fetched €19,000. In the dining room, a set of 17 mahogany chairs (€12,000-€18,000) fetched €22,000 and the dining table itself (€30,000-€50,000) went for €65,000. Forced to bid against other potential purchasers, Lissadell’s new private owners managed to acquire some pieces, such as a pair of handsome mahogany Grecian-style bookcases clearly inspired by the work of Thomas Hope and, again in the dining room, a sturdy mahogany sideboard. But many of the contents, first installed some 170 years earlier, now left for good and not just the Williams & Gibton furniture. There were, for example, a number of fine 17th century Italian baroque paintings, many in spectacular gilt frames, which had been acquired for the rooms by Sir Robert Gore-Booth. And then there were all the miscellaneous objects that build up in any house over generations, from sets of copper jelly moulds to discarded furnishings such as old curtains. These, as much as the more valuable pieces, are what inform the history of a building, and when they are gone, part of that history disappears forever.
In Ireland, it has long been apparent that if the remaining number of historic houses and contents are to survive, then a coherent strategy to secure their future needs to be considered. The first attempt to devise such a strategy occurred back in 1985 when a body called the Irish Historic Properties Commission, established three years earlier, produced a report written by the late Kevin B Nolan and Lewis Clohessy and called Safeguarding Historic Houses. This clearly stated that ‘our heritage historic properties cannot be preserved without the active and consistent support of the Irish Government.’ Eight years later, in 1993 the Irish Georgian Society and another body since gone, Irish Heritage Properties, held a conference on the future of the Irish country house, subsequently publishing a report on its proceedings. This makes for melancholy reading, since so many of the problems then highlighted remain to the present day, not least the want of sufficient support from central and local government. Ten years later again, Professor Terence Dooley of Maynooth University, at the request of the Irish Georgian Society and the Dept of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, produced a report, A Future for Irish Historic Houses? A Study of Fifty Houses. A year later, the same government department invited Indecon International Consultants to produce an Examination of the Issue of Trust-type Organisations to Manage Heritage Properties in Ireland. Most recently, in 2015 the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in collaboration with Irish Historic Houses Association after extensive consultation with a wide variety of interested parties and stakeholders, issued an Action Plan for the Sustainable Future of the Irish Historic House in Private Ownership, a document which was duly approved by the Irish cabinet and appeared in 2016. In other words, no one can complain that the challenges facing the Irish country house and the retention of its contents have been insufficiently examined and analysed. Produced over a period of almost 40 years, these and other documents have constantly made the same point: that houses in private ownership, if they are to have a viable future and hold onto their original furnishings, need assistance from central and local government, the kind of assistance that is available in other European countries but has consistently failed to materialise to any adequate extent in Ireland.
Outside observers often note with surprise that in Ireland there is no equivalent of the National Trust which operates on the other side of the Irish Sea and in Northern Ireland. An attempt was made to create such an equivalent with the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust in 2006. The IHT was largely the brainchild of the Irish Georgian Society’s current president Sir David Davies. The original purpose of this organisation was that it would, like the National Trust, acquire for public access significant heritage properties deemed to be at risk and for which the State did not want to assume direct responsibility. This would ensure that the houses and their contents would remain intact and preserved for future generations. At the time of its establishment and in recognition of the potential significance of IHT’s work, the government of the time earmarked €35 million for the organisation over the duration of the National Development Plan 2007-2013. Accordingly the IHT entered into discussions with the owners of a number of properties judged to be most suitable for such an arrangement. At all times the relevant government department – for Environment, Heritage and Local Government as well as the Department of Finance – was briefed on developments at Anne’s Grove and in 2008 all relevant parties agreed the IHT would assume responsibility for its first estate thanks to an endowment fund of €5 million (drawn from its National Development Plan funding) and associated tax credits. Then in December 2008, the department’s minister wrote to the IHT advising that due to changing circumstances it would not be possible to provide the necessary support. The IHT has since successfully reinvented itself, but the fact remains that there is still no equivalent of the National Trust in Ireland, and historic properties, along with their contents, continue to be lost because of want of state support for their survival. Today’s photographs show the empty interiors of Howth Castle, sold in 2019 after being occupied for more than 800 years by the same family. The house’s remaining contents were dispersed at public auction two years ago in September 2021. Unless there is a change in state policy towards these properties, and towards the histories they contain, more such sales will occur in the years ahead. And we will continue to be the poorer.
The modest graveyard of Killathy, County Cork contains the remains of a late-medieval church but is dominated by the roofless shell of a large mausoleum, its pedimented facade of limestone ashlar featuring rusticated pilasters on either side of a wide arched opening, access to the interior barred by substantial metal gates (and a great deal of vegetation). The cement-rendered sides and rear of the building are completely plain and there is no indication anywhere for whom it might have been constructed, no crest, no name, nothing. Killathy lies mid-point between Castle Hyde, home to generations of the Hyde family, and Convamore, now a ruin but once residence of the Hares, Earls of Listowel: perhaps this mausoleum was erected for one of these families?
Descended from the late 10th century High King of Ireland Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, for much of the period following the Norman invasion, the O’Melaghlins (later McLoughlin) were a dominant family in what is now Westmeath. As such, they built various fortified residences for themselves, including the core of what is today called Moate Castle: the town of Moate derives its name from the motte and bailey which was erected here by the Normans. The O’Melaghlin castle is thought to have been constructed around 1500 and remained in their hands for a century until sold by Feardorcha O’Melaghlin to Hubert Dillon, who lived a short distance north of Moate at Drumraney. However, in the upheavals of the mid-17th century, Dillon’s son lost the castle, which was granted to an English soldier called Humphreys. In 1655 he, in turn, sold the property to another soldier, Captain John Clibborn, whose forebears came from Yorkshire and whose descendants would live in the place for the next couple of centuries.
As mentioned, the Clibborns continued to live in Moate Castle for some 200 years; in Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), it was listed as the residence of Cuthbert John Clibborn. Following his death in 1847, he was succeeded by his eldest son Thomas Strettel Clibborn, then aged just ten. Having graduated as an engineer from Trinity College Dublin, in 1859 Thomas Strettel Clibborn emigrated to Australia where he spent the rest of his life, where thanks to his keen interest in racing, he became secretary of the Australian Jockey Club, where he proved to be an outstandingly effective administrator, remaining in the position until shortly before his death in 1910. In Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Ireland (published 1912), Clibborn’s eldest son George Holmes Clibborn’s elder son is listed as being ‘of the Castle, Moate, County Westmeath’ but he likely never lived there as even during his father’s lifetime it seems to have been rented to a succession of tenants, including Gilbert Nugent (later of Jamestown Court), a Quaker businessman called William Wooley and Edward Fetherstonhaugh. At the beginning of the last century, the local postmaster, a Mr Moore occupied the building, followed by Mr Gardiner, who taught at the local Church of Ireland school. For just over half a century, the property has been owned by the Mitchell Family who recently placed it on the market.
Moate Castle sits high above the town’s main street but what can be seen from here is actually the back of the building: the main entrance is on the other, north-facing side and looks out over several acres of enclosed land, presumably once laid out as gardens. The original castle is in the eastern section of the main house and is of two bays and three storeys. Various additions were made to this from the late 17th to the end of the 18th centuries, beginning with an extension to the immediate west which is likewise three storeys high and of three bays. At the western extremity and on the rear, a two-storey bow-fronted extension was also added at some unknown date. Returning to the facade, this shows a four-bay house of three storeys, the interior accessed via a relatively modest Gibbsian limestone doorcase. The building on this side is flanked by two-storey, gable-ended pavilions that createa a shallow forecourt; both of these are now in poor condition but must once have been fine structures. Beyond the eastern pavilion is the yard with stables and coach house: here a Sheela na gig has been inserted into the wall immediately above a Gothic arched. Stepping inside, the castle proves to be less substantial, and much more manageable as a home, than its external appearance might suggest. The entrance hall contains a fine mid-18th century staircase giving access to the upper floors, with a drawing room to the immediate right and a passage leading to what might have been the original dining room and thence the kitchen in the old castle. Upstairs, a similar passageway leads to a number of bedrooms. Throughout the building, decoration is spare, reflecting the fact that the Clibborns were Quakers. Moate Castle deserves a thorough examination than it has been given hitherto as the house can be seen as a palimpsest of Irish architectural history across more than 500 years, reflecting changes in taste and material circumstances during that long period. The hope must be that a sympathetic new owner can be found for the property, sensitive to its significance and prepared to ensure that Moate Castle can continue to bear witness to the country’s past.
In his Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters, Ellis Waterhouse describes Thomas Frye (1710-62) as ‘one of the most original and least standardised portrait painters of his generation.’ Frye was born in Edenderry, County Offaly, a younger son of one John Fry whose father, born in Holland of English parents, appears to have settled in Ireland in the 17th century. Little is known of Frye’s training, although in their book on Ireland’s Painters, Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin note that his earliest signed work, dated 1732, ‘seems to have silvery echoes of James Latham’ so perhaps he spent time in the latter’s studio. Around this time, or even earlier, Frye left Ireland and by 1736 had settled in London where he was sufficiently well-known to be commissioned to paint the portrait of Frederick, Prince of Wales for the Company of Saddlers. While Frye specialised in portraiture, from the mid-1740s onwards, he became involved in the manufacture of fine porcelain and from around 1747 onwards he managed a factory producing this ware which he had co-founded in Bow on the outskirts of London. Due to ill-health, he had to retire from the business in 1759 but then concentrated on creating mezzotints, in which medium he again displayed both imagination and innovation. Today Frye is best-remembered for two series of mezzotints issued in the years immediately prior to his death; these show a fondness for dramatic chiaroscuro and what has been called a ‘Gothic intensity.’ As is widely known, these pictures would have a considerable influence on Joseph Wright of Derby and other later artists. Published in 1760 and 1761, the two series are all of heads, almost life-size, and although the sitters were unnamed, they are believed to have been taken from life: Strickland, in his Dictionary of Irish Artists (1913) reports that Frye had difficulty persuading ladies to sit for these pictures, as they were uncertain of the company in which their portraits would appear. Strickland also recorded that having been very corpulent and prone to gout, Frye adopted a spare diet, in consequence of which he ‘fell into consumption’ and died in April 1762.
For a long time, two of Thomas Frye’s portraits hung in a house called Frybrook, in Boyle, County Roscommon. This property dates from some time after 1742 when the Edenderry merchant Henry Fry (older brother of the aforementioned Thomas Frye) was invited to move to Boyle by James King, fourth Baron Kingston whose family owned the town and, when there, lived in King House. As with many other large landowners of the time, King was keen to improve the economic circumstances of his estate, and thereby increase his own income, so Fry was expected not just to settle in Boyle but also to establish a weaving business there. The Frys appear to have prospered; in 1835, Henry Fry of Frybrook and his relative, also called Henry Fry, of another house in the vicinity, Fairyhill, were founding members of the Boyle branch of the Agricultural and Commercial Bank (although this venture failed nationally after only a couple of years). Successive generations of Frys continued to live in the family home until the 1980s when, for the first time, it was offered for sale. Thereafter the house somehow survived but slowly fell into decline and appeared at risk of being lost forever until purchased by the present owners five years ago.
Frybrook is located in the centre of Boyle, on land immediately north of the river (also called Boyle) with its gate lodge – now a cafe – standing immediately beside the town’s main bridge. Found at the end of a short drive, the house is of five bays and three storeys, the absence of a basement explained by the proximity of the river, with its threat of flooding. Frybrook is rather more grand than the usual urban residence, its facade suggesting a country house, with a pedimented limestone doorcase with sidelights below a Venetian window above which is an oculus window. Inside, the ground floor has an entrance hall with main staircase to the rear, and reception rooms to the right and left; behind these, and down a few steps are the former servants’ quarters. The stairs climb to the first floor where additional large reception rooms, with fine cornices and handsome architraves above the windows, can be found; originally the main bedrooms were on the floor above. On the way up to this level, unusually the return is semi-elliptical with a door in its centre giving access to the service areas to the rear of the house. As mentioned, Frybrook was at risk of being lost before being bought by the present owners five years ago. Since acquiring the building, they have undertaken extensive restoration and plan to open Frybrook as a guest house in 2024.
The name of St Olav’s church in Waterford testifies to the city’s Viking origins: Olaf II was a Norweigan king killed at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and canonised in 1164. The original church here, likely made of wood, is supposed to have been constructed around 1050, long before Olav became a saint, so it must have been named after him at a later date, perhaps when the stone structure was built. The latter had fallen into ruin by the early 17th century and only an arched doorcase survives at the west end of the present church, which occupies the same site but was erected in the 1730s on the instructions of the then-Bishop of Waterford, Thomas Milles: its design has been attributed to William Halfpenny who, during the same period, produced designs for the Bishop’s Palace and Christ Church Cathedral, neither of which were executed (see: The Finest 18th century Ecclesiastical Building in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). St Olav’s remained a place of worship until 1970 and today serves as a community centre.
Anyone who travels about Ireland cannot fail to notice the sheer number of vacant buildings which have been left to fall into dereliction and which are intermittently the subject of attention on this site. Sadly, such is the case with today’s property, Kilheffernan Cottage, County Tipperary.
This is a curious building in three parts and the challenge for anyone looking at the place is working out dates of construction for each member of the trio. To the left (westerly) is a two storey, three bay house with two deep windows, six over six panes, on the ground floor and a blank wall between them; marks on the exterior render suggest that there was once a door here providing access to the house. The building to the right (east) now has a steeply pitched corrugated iron roof but, it is proposed in buildingsofireland.ie, was originally thatched. Four pretty glazed doors with decorative overlights open to a large single room which, in turn, leads into the little link building, an entrance hall with coved ceiling and glazed porch to the front. As for the largest of the buildings, the ground floor contains two reception rooms as well as a kitchen and ancillary rooms to the rear. The most notable feature is the wooden spiral staircase that snakes up to the first floor bedrooms and bathrooms. Unfortunately, having been neglected for a long period, slates have been lost from the roof and the interior has suffered severe damage from water ingress; regrettably, all the chimneypieces have also been removed. There is a range of outbuildings to the rear of the property.
Tracing the history of Kilheffernan Cottage is something of a challenge. At least some of it must date from the 18th century. According to landedestates.ie, a Thomas Ryan, whose family had been resident in the area since the early 1700s, was proprietor of the place in 1814. Samuel Lewis likewise lists T. Ryan as being there in 1837 and by the time of Griffith’s Valuation a couple of decades later, Patrick Fennelly held the house – valued at £10 and 13 shillings – from Thomas Ryan. In 1922 the historian Maurice O’Connell, a descendant of Daniel O’Connell, was born at Kilheffernan Cottage where his parents were then living. In 2005, the year of Maurice O’Connell’s death, the place was offered for sale with 15 acres. Since then, it would appear to have sat empty and allowed to fall into its present condition. Inevitably, the house is included on the local authority’s list of protected structures.
Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries, marking the country’s ten years of transformation 1913-23 is now drawing to a close, but there are still opportunities for analysis and reflection about what happened during that period. On Saturday, October 7th the Irish Aesthete will be participating in County Tipperary’s annual Dromineer Nenagh Literary Festival (celebrating its own 20th anniversary), in conversation with poet Vona Groarke about some of the great houses which were burnt in the early 1920s, many of them never rebuilt and lost forever. One such was Ardfert, County Kerry, set on fire in August 1922. The photographs above show the building before and after the conflagration, while those below are images of the interior, including the panelled hall with its classical grisaille figures, and the splendid main staircase, all lost in that fire, after which the house was pulled down so that nothing survives as a memory of its existence.
For further information about this event and others in the Dromineer Nenagh Literary Festival, please see: Left without a Handkerchief – dnlf
Follies of all varieties have featured here in the past, but one genre is especially interesting: the building designed to look older than was actually the case. In Ireland, some of the earliest examples of this style, in the form of faux-antique rusticated buildings, can be found at Tollymore Park, County Down (see Do the Wright Thing « The Irish Aesthete), the design of, or at least inspiration for, which came from Thomas Wright who visited the estate in September 1746. Wright is also credited with being responsible for the Rustic Arch at Belvedere, County Westmeath (see Very Mannered « The Irish Aesthete) which dates from around the same period as he was in this country. But the fashion for such structures lingered long after his departure, as is demonstrated by the gatelodge at Bracklyn, County Westmeath (see Refined Rusticity « The Irish Aesthete) where a shield above the bellcote arch bears the date 1821, although the building may have been constructed earlier. Nevertheless, it provides evidence that rusticity achieved nationwide popularity, with one fine example being found in County Laois.
The grotto at Ballyfin, County Laois probably dates from the third quarter of the 18th century, when the estate belonged to William Pole who lived there with his wife, Lady Sarah Moore. The couple were responsible for laying out the demesne in the newly-fashionable arcadian manner, not least by the addition of a large, man-made lake, close to which the grotto can be found. And like the lake, this structure was intended to look as though designed by nature, rather than a clever piece of artifice. The grotto lies below a mound on top of which once stood a long-since lost summer house, a suitable destination for a stroll from the main house. And while the latter would have demonstrated the civilised character of its owners, the grotto was, in parallel, intended to display their romantic sensibilities, influenced by Rousseau-esque notions of the noble savage. A roughly circular space in front of the little building is centred on a small pond, fed by a stream that trickles over stones down one side of the mound. The grotto occupies a generous portion of the circle, and takes the form of a primitive temple, with the substantial portico supported by large vertical boulders imitating columns, complete with uncut capitals. Beyond the portico are three openings, the middle one providing an entrance to the interior, one large room, the floor inlaid with pebbles around another circular pool. Above this rises the vaulted ceiling, a rustic version of that found in the Pantheon in Rome complete with central opening. In this instance, however, the view is not of open sky but of another giant stone seemingly hovering in space (although in fact it is supported by a number of other boulders not visible while inside the chamber). As already noted, the grotto at Ballyfin was envisaged to look as though nobody had been involved in its construction but instead had just happened, like a cave. But also highly popular during the same period were another kind of artificial building: the sham ruin.
The same romantic sensibility that led to the construction of Ballyfin’s grotto was also responsible for inspiring the ‘ruin’ seen at Killua Castle, County Westmeath. The castle is itself a sham, since when originally constructed by Sir Benjamin Chapman around 1784 this was a strictly classical house. It was Sir Benjamin’s brother and heir, Sir Thomas Chapman, who , after inheriting the estate in 1810 set about transforming the building into the castle seen today. However, perhaps he was inspired by work already undertaken within the demesne by his sibling. In 1800 Sir Benjamin had acquired some of the stonework from the medieval Franciscan friary at Multyfarnham, elsewhere in the same county, and used this to create a charming ‘ruin’ visible from the garden front of the house and occupying a mound overlooking the lake he had created some years earlier. He was by no means the only, or even the first, estate owner to recycle materials from another, older site. In the demesne at Heywood, County Laois Michael Frederick Trench had built an artificial ruined abbey, incorporating fine traceried windows said to be 15th century and to have been brought from the former Dominican friary at Aghaboe, some twelve miles away. The sham ruin at Killua is not intended to look like the remains of an old religious establishment (Sir Benjamin simultaneously employed other stonework to ‘embellish’ the old St. Lua’s Church, lying to the south-east of the demesne), but instead to suggest these were the surviving sections of an old castle or fortified residence. It comprises a two-storey, octagonal tower on octagonal plan with an adjacent wall constructed to look like the remains of a gable end of a building. Like the grotto at Ballyfin, it served no practical purpose other than to delight the eye and to provide a destination when residents of the main house and their guests undertook a walk. Thankfully in recent years both these follies have been restored by their respective owners so that they can continue to do the same today.