Located on a narrow country road and exceptionally wide (and therefore impossible to photograph fully face-on), these are the entrance gates to Newberry, County Cork. It would appear that the outer pair of classical ashlar pillars dating from the 18th century and topped with eagles comes from an older entrance to the estate close to the adjacent church of St Senach. In the 1840s, the present gateway was created and the older pillars incorporated into this, but separated by rustic rubble walls from a smaller pair of pillars, this time crowned by pineapple finials. Sadly the Georgian Gothic lodge on the other side of the road has now fallen into ruin.
When John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington commissioned designs for a residence from architect James Gandon in 1790, he already lived in a fine house. This was Dawson Court, presumably built earlier in the 18th century by his grandfather Ephraim Dawson following the latter’s marriage to Ann Preston, heiress to an estate at Emo, County Laois. Since no pictures or descriptions exist, we know very little about that building, other than it was called Dawson Court and stood somewhere in the vicinity of the present, Gandon-designed Emo Court. The only surviving parts of the building are a pair of carved limestone chimney pieces, one of which remains in a former bedroom on the first floor. The other, once protected by a since-demolished passageway, now sits exposed against a wall to the immediate west of the house.
Abbey Leix, County Laois
‘I must return to give you an account of Lady De Vesci’s. I am quite in love with her and with their state of living. It is entirely without form, everybody doing as they please, and always a vast number of people in the house. Lady Knapton, his mother, lives with them, and seems no restraint upon anybody, she is so good-humoured. We were about six or seven ladies and as many gentlemen, divided into different parties about the room, some working, some reading, some playing cards, and the room being large and very full, it had a most comfortable appearance. It opens into the library on one side and the dining-room on the other. As it rained most of the time I was there I did not see much of the grounds, but the park is not laid out, as they have employed all their time and money in making a comfortable house first, which I think the most sensible plan. Lady De Vesci was very loth to let us go so soon, but Mr. Dawson had business at home that prevented our staying longer. However, we go again into their neighbourhood the end of next week, as Sir Robert and Lady Staples have been very pressing with their invitations, and insisted upon our naming the time, which we accordingly did, and Lady De Vesci begs we will come to her again after that, to meet Lord and Lady Tyrone, so you see we have enough to do; besides we have a ball to go to on Wednesday next, which a distant neighbour has invited us to, and when all this is over we meditate a trip to Dublin, to buy some things we have occasion for.’
From Lady Caroline Dawson to Lady Louisa Stuart, September 1778.
Carton, County Kildare
‘At last we have left Dublin, and are arrived at this place, which I find more agreeable than I expected, though I don’t think I should like to stay long; but for a couple of days it will do very well, as there is a good deal to see. I can’t say much for the entertainment within, as the Duchess is not more agreeable in her own house than she was in mine ; however, I am not sure but what I should grow to have some liking, or at least esteem, for her, as I am convinced she is perfectly good and well meaning. The Duke seems very fond of her, and being stupid himself, does not, I daresay, find out that she has any deficiency of understanding. Lady Charlotte [FitzGerald, sister of the Duke of Leinster], who is really sensible, seems to do what she pleases with them both. You will be surprised when I tell you there are at present four generations in the house, the Duchess having her mother and grandmother paying her a visit, which, with her children, makes up four, and the great-grandmother is a very good-looking woman, not older than most people’s mothers, and the Duchess’s mother, Lady St. George, one would take to be fifteen. I must describe her to you, because she is so remarkable. She has a very pretty little figure, with a face not handsome, but well enough, and her dress in the afternoon is a polonaise trimmed with gauze ; upon recollection, I am telling you wrong, for it is a Circassian, all over loops and tassels (like the one Mrs. Stuart brought from Paris last year), and a little black Henri Quatre hat upon her head, with her hair dressed up to it behind. In a morning she wears an orange-coloured habit embroidered, or rather embossed, with gold, and a great rich gold stuff waistcoat, with broad laced ruffles, and a little white beaver hat with a bunch of white feathers upon the top, and a black stock, so that she looks the finest French figure you ever saw. Everything seems to go on in great state here. The Duchess appears in a sack and hoop and diamonds in an afternoon, French horns playing at every meal, and such quantities of plate, etc., that one would imagine oneself in a palace; and there are servants without end.’
From Lady Caroline Dawson to Lady Louisa Stuart, October 1778.
Castletown, County Kildare
‘On Saturday they asked if I should like going to Castletown, Mr. Conolly’s, and upon my answering in the affirmative we set out in the coach and six with all due state. I was very much entertained, as it is a very pretty place, though a flat (which you will not credit, I suppose) ; but there’s very fine wood, a fine river, and views of mountains from every part of it, so the flatness does not strike one so much, and I never saw any place kept so neat and nice. They first carried me to the cottage, for you must know it is quite the fashion in Ireland to have a cottage neatly fitted up with Tunbridge ware, and to drink tea in it during the summer. We then went to the house, which is the largest I ever was in, and reckoned the finest in this kingdom. It has been done up entirely by Lady Louisa, and with a very good taste ; but what struck me most was a gallery, I daresay 150 feet long, furnished in the most delightful manner with fine glasses, books, musical instruments, billiard table, in short, everything that you can think of is in that room, and though so large, is so well filled, that it is the warmest, most comfortable-looking place I ever saw ; and they tell me they live in it quite in winter, for the servants can bring in dinner or supper at one end, without anybody hearing it at the other, in short, I never saw anything so delightful, and I am sure you would have been in raptures. Lady Charlotte [FitzGerald] is so fond of it that she would have me go into every hole and corner of that great house, and then made me walk all over the shrubbery, so that by the time we had finished I was compleatly tired.’
From Lady Caroline Dawson to Lady Louisa Stuart, October 1778
Next Sunday afternoon, I shall be speaking at Emo Court, County Laois on Lady Caroline Dawson and her visits to country houses around Ireland. For further information, please see: http://emocourt.ie/event/robert-obyrne-lady-caroline-dawson-an-18th-century-country-house-guest
Until recently, Doneraile Court, County Cork had an unhappy recent past and what threatened to be an equally unhappy future. One of the earliest non-fortified houses in Ireland, the core of the present building was constructed in the 1720s to the design of Isaac Rothery for Arthur St Leger, first Viscount Doneraile. His great-grandfather Sir Anthony St Leger, who came from Kent, had been sent to Ireland in 1537 by Henry VIII and in 1540 was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. The family gradually acquired land in this country, and in 1636 Sir William St. L:eger, Knight, Lord President of Munster bought what is now Doneraile from its previous owners the Synans for ‘the sum of Three hundred pounds sterling current money of and in England in hand payed to us.’ Until Doneraile Court was built, they lived in an old castle on the opposite side of the river Awbeg. The house has a seven-bay, three-storey facade of cut stone with curved end bows added at a later date in the 18th century. Further additions were made in the following century, including a three-bay porch to the front and a vast dining room of 1869 (demolished during restoration work just over a century later). The interior contains an early 18th century panelled room and an oval late-18th century staircase hall with Adamesque plasterwork on its ceiling.
The last Lord Doneraile to live in the house was the seventh Viscount who had been born and lived in New Zealand before inheriting the title and estate in 1941. He and his wife had no children and following his death in 1957 she remained alone in Doneraile Court. Then in 1968 a 47-year old Californian truck driver called Richard St John St Leger arrived in Ireland with his family and claimed to be the Doneraile heir. An application was lodged with the British House of Lords for his claim to be recognised. While this process was underway and despite objections from the estate’s Trustees, the family moved into the house, initially living with the widowed Lady Doneraile although she later settled in a cottage on the estate. Around the same time the Trustees had reached agreement with the Land Commission for the purchase of Doneraile Court and its lands for £56,800. Richard St Leger meanwhile began refurbishment work on the house with the intention of opening it to the public. The Irish Georgian Society offered support and sent a large number of volunteers to help prior to an opening ceremony planned for July 1969 when the American Ambassador to Ireland would officially open the house. However, just a matter of days beforehand, the Trustees gained an injunction in the High Court against the public opening of Doneraile Court on the grounds that the house’s floors were unsafe. They then proceeded to sell its entire contents to a consortium of antique dealers. Soon afterwards the Land Commission completed the purchase of the estate. His claim to the title never proven, Richard St Leger moved out of the house and later returned to the United States.
The Doneraile estate now passed into State ownership as part of the Office of Public Works’ Department of Forestry and Fisheries. But while care was lavished on the parkland in preparation of being opened to the public, the same was not true for the house which rapidly started to show evidence of neglect and deterioration. Windows were broken by vandals, plasterwork in the hall began to fall off the walls and the 19th century conservatory collapsed. In May 1976 it was announced that Doneraile Court was to be leased to the Irish Georgian Society rent-free on condition that the organisation undertook to restore the building. Gradually the house’s dereliction was brought under control. By the end of 1978 the Irish Georgian Society had spent £25,000 on structural repairs and that figure would climb steadily higher; in 1983 the organization estimated it had spent some £40,000 on the house. The amount would have been much higher but for the fact that much of the work had been undertaken by volunteers. In June 1984 the park at Doneraile was opened to the public but a lot more still needed to be accomplished before the house could follow the demesne’s lead and admit visitors. In 1990 a tearoom began operating in the house’s old kitchen, and in April 1992 the ground floor of Doneraile Court opened with a variety of exhibitions on show, including photographs of restoration work from the very start. Two years later, with the greater part of the restoration work completed at a cost of £500,000, the Irish Georgian Society was at last able to hand the house back to the Office of Public Works. For the next 25 years, the building remained closed and shuttered. Finally, last month it re-opened to the public and for once the wait has been worthwhile. As today’s pictures show, Doneraile Court now looks better than it has for more than half a century, the ground floor rooms impeccably refurbished and decorated. Here is a triumphant demonstration that an historic building, no matter how long neglected, can be brought back to peak condition. What has occurred here can, with sufficient ambition and imagination, also happen elsewhere. Congratulations are merited to all involved in this enterprise, which is ongoing as there are plans to open the first floor in due course. Doneraile Court’s unhappy past has been expunged, and the house can now look forward to an optimistic future.
Next Sunday at 3pm I shall be giving a talk at Doneraile Court on a number of houses elsewhere in County Cork which have not enjoyed its good fortune. For further information, please see: http://doneraileestate.ie/event/robert-obyrne-the-irish-aesthete-in-county-cork/
The façade of Churchtown, County Kerry. This house replaced nearby Castle Corr (see last Wednesday) as a residence for the McGillycuddy family, and may have been built in part using stone from that now-ruined building. In 1717 Dennis McGillycuddy married Anne Blennerhassett and Churchtown subsequently passed into the possession of her family, remaining with them until the second half of the 19th century when bought by forebears of the present owners (who now offer it as a holiday let). Believed to date from 1740, building is slate-fronted on its southern side and this was also the case with the now-rendered, five-bay façade, plain other than the cut limestone doorcase.
The façade of Slane Castle, County Meath. This dates from c.1785 for William Burton Conyngham who four years earlier had inherited the estate from a childless uncle. In 1773 and 1775 the latter had asked English architect James Wyatt to come up with designs to replace an old house on the site but nothing came of these. Only after Burton Conyngham came into possession of the place were Wyatt’s proposals realised (James Gandon having previously been consulted). Writing in 1820 Francis Johnston (who later worked on the house’s interiors), Wyatt visited Slane in 1785 ‘for that purpose.’ If this is so, it was the only time he actually came to Ireland, despite having many clients here.
The little church at Clonagam, County Waterford sits on high ground almost directly north of Curraghmore, with superlative views from the graveyard down to the house and gardens. The present building dates from 1741 when on the instructions of Marcus Beresford, Earl of Tyrone and his heiress wife Catherine de la Poer it replaced an older building on the site. Although there were subsequent alterations, essentially this is still the same structure, taking the form of a simple Roman barn, the rendered entrance front relieved only by a cut-stone Gibbsian doorcase and diagonal stepped buttresses on either corner topped with crocketed pinnacles. Round-headed windows on either side and on the east front were probably of clear glass originally but now contain some stained glass panels. Otherwise there is nothing to distinguish the church from many others throughout the country. The real interest lies inside, where generations of the de la Poer Beresford family are remembered.
Two of Clonagam church’s most prominent monuments are located at the east end of the building, that on the north wall carrying the following inscription: To the Memory of Marcus Beresford, Earl, and Viscount of Tyrone, Baron Beresford, and Baronet who departed this life on the 4th of April 1763 in the 69th year of his Age, and of Catherine, Baroness Le Poer in Fee, his Countess, Daughter and Heiress to James Power, Earl of Tyrone, Viscount Decies, and Baron Le Poer, who dyed in the 68th year of her Age on the 16th of July 1769 this Monument is Erected by their Son, George de la Poer Beresford, Marquis of Waterford, in Testimony of his Duty, Gratitude and Affection. In front of a polished limestone pyramid, the white marble monument features portrait busts of the couple, similar to those seen in Imperial Roman tombs, their deaths mourned by a pair of disconsolate putti. Unfortunately the sculptor responsible for the work is not known, unlike the monument on the opposite wall which recalls Florence Grosvenor Rowley, who in August 1872 married John Henry de la Poer Beresford, fifth Marquess of Waterford: the following April she died in childbirth. Set into the wall of the church and dramatically lit by a concealed window, the sculpture shows both the deceased marchioness as though asleep and cradling her baby, who also did not survive. This work was created by the Viennese-born Vienna-born Joseph Edgar Boehm, who had settled in London in the early 1860s, exhibiting at the Royal Academy (where he was elected a member in 1782) and becoming the favourite sculptor of Queen Victoria who awarded him a knighthood. Boehm was also responsible for the St Hubert stag that sits atop the façade of the main house at Curraghmore.
The body of the church at Clonagam is dominated by two lifesize recumbent figures, that on the north side representing Henry de la Poer Beresford, third Marquess of Waterford who was killed in a hunting accident in March 1859. In polished granite, it shows the deceased clad in his robes as a Knight of the Order of St Patrick. Since the third marquess and his wife Louisa had no children, the title and Curraghmore estate were inherited by his brother, John de la Poer Beresford. Before becoming the fourth Marquess, he had served as a Church of Ireland clergyman and so the white marble monument shows him in clerical robes; he died just six years after his elder brother. Several other members of the family also became clergymen, and one of them is similarly commemorated in the church: the Most Rev. John George de la Poer Beresford, a younger son of the first marquess. He briefly served as Archbishop of Dublin before becoming Archbishop of Armagh in 1822, holding the position for the next forty years. In Armagh, he was responsible for undertaking the restoration of the ancient cathedral of St Patrick, then in a perilous state of disrepair. There he was buried, but the monument on the south wall of Clonagam church was erected in his memory by the wives of the third and fourth marquesses. Incidentally, he was succeeded as Archbishop of Armagh by a cousin, Marcus Gervais Beresford. Finally, one other curious sculpture deserves attention. This is a semi-recumbent male figure looking to date from the late 17th century, his right hand resting on a knee (from which a stocking has untidily slipped) his left supporting his head as he leans backwards. His present position is on a shelf inside the church’s marble baroque chimney piece, but this appears not to be the original setting. Elsewhere in the building a number of wall plaques were repositioned after the Church of Ireland church in Carrick-on-Suir, their original home, closed its doors in the early 1980s. Presumably this figure was moved here at the same time and tucked inside the chimney piece. Who he represents is unclear but one of the plaques commemorates John Power, second Earl of Tyrone who died in 1693 at the age of 29: might he be the reclining figure? Whatever the answer, like the others inside the church – and indeed in the graveyard outside – he awaits the Day of Judgement.
The façade of the former Charter School in Monasterevin, County Kildare. This was one of a number of such educational institutions set up under the auspices of The Incorporated Society in Dublin for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland (established 1733). Work on the site began in 1758 and the school opened for pupils four years later. Following the school’s closure, towards the end of the 19th century the building was converted for use as a warehouse, the windows then being reduced in size.
The old charter school has stood empty for many years, but in 2006 permission was granted for the building to be renovated and on the surrounding 26 acre site some 201 residential dwellings and a medical centre constructed. Economic recession intervened and that permission has long since lapsed. Last year, a fresh application was made by a developer for a 60-bed nursing home and 115 residential units, as well as a crèche and a craft and retail space here. The same developer’s latest application (for 99 residential units and, it appears, no nursing home) was turned down by the local council last March. No doubt there will be another in due course. Meanwhile the condition of the former school continues to deteriorate.
A stretch of the Dublin quays on the south side of the river Liffey known as Usher’s Island takes its name from what was once a prominent family in the fields of both commerce and religion. The Ushers/Usshers liked to believe they were descended from Gilbert de Neville, admiral of William the Conqueror’s fleet in 1066. Whatever their origins, in the 14th century John le Uscher was made Constable of Dublin Castle by Edward I, held the office for several years, and was reappointed to the same position by Edward II (who seems to have been his friend or patron, the original appointment having been given “at the instance of King Edward’s son”). Although he returned to his native Yorkshire on retirement, a presumed grandson Arland Ussher (born c. 1420) settled in Dublin, where he became one of the city’s leading merchants; in 1461, he was bailiff of Dublin and, in 1469, mayor. It was from two sons of his second marriage, John and Christopher Ussher that later Irish Usshers were descended. In the late 16th century, John Ussher built a fine residence for himself called Bridgefoot House: where this once stood is now called Bridgefoot Street, while its former riverside gardens are today covered by the buildings of Usher’s Island and Usher’s Quay. It was on this property that the very first book printed in the Gaelic language, containing an alphabet and Christian catechism, was produced. Its title page contains the following information: ‘Printed in Irish in the town of the Ford of the Hurdles, at the cost of Master John Ussher, alderman, at the head of the Bridge, the 20th day of June 1571.” John Usher’s son, Sir William Usher, paid for the publication of the first New Testament printed in the Irish language; this appeared in 1602. Given their strong adherence to the Protestant faith, it is not surprising the family produced several distinguished Anglican clerics, notably Henry Ussher (c. 1550–1613), one of the founders of Trinity College Dublin and, from 1595, Archbishop of Armagh. One of his nephews, James Ussher (1581–1656), held the same position from 1625 onward. Archbishop James Ussher’s scrupulous study of the Bible and early history led him to write the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (‘Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world’), which first appeared in 1650, together with its continuation, Annalium pars posterior published four years later. Famously his research allowed him to calculate the moment of Earth’s creation: around 6pm on 22 October 4004 BC.
As was so often the case, with the passage of time the Usshers distanced themselves from trade and became increasingly gentrified, acquiring land in different parts of the country, and forming advantageous familial alliances. For example, in 1695 a grandson of Sir William Ussher of Dublin, also called William, married Lettice, daughter and co heiress of Sir Henry Waddington; as a result, part of the Waddington estates in county Galway passed into the possession of the Ussher family. Meanwhile, another of Sir William’s grandsons, Beverley Ussher moved south to County Waterford where he made two successive marriages to heiresses, one being a daughter of Sir Percy Smyth of Ballynatray and the other a daughter of Sir Richard Osborne of Ballintaylor. As a result, a branch of the family settled in the south east of the country, where they built up estates and properties in which to live. Cappagh was one of those houses, constructed during the first decade of the 19th century by Beverley Ussher’s great-grandson Richard Ussher. However, in 1875 the old house was abandoned by Richard’s son, Richard John Ussher in favour of a newer residence on higher grounds and with better views across the surrounding landscape. This building was designed by James Otway and Robert Watt, architects and railway engineers who were also responsible for the line that linked Dungarvan to Mallow, County Cork. A keen fossil hunter, Richard John Ussher was seemingly the first person to discover the remains of a mammoth and a saber-tooth cat in Ireland, as well as that of a Great Auk (the last of these excavated in the sand dunes of Tramore, Co. Waterford). He also developed a passionate interest in ornithology and was a keen collector of bird’s eggs. With co-author Robert Warren, the results of his extensive research were published in 1906 as The Birds of Ireland. However, just a few decades later, the Usshers sold what remained of the Cappagh estate to the family of the present owners.
As can be seen in these photographs, old Cappagh is a most curious building, one that suggests a disparity between ambition and income. The front of the house forms the southern portion of a courtyard. At either end of the façade, the building rises two storeys but then, after just one bay, it becomes single storey and turns into a long, narrow villa. Evidently the Usshers embarked on its construction intending the central portion to be of the same dimensions as those at either end, but then – presumably for economic reasons – this project was abandoned and a more modest scheme accepted. Seemingly its builder, the elder Richard Ussher, participated in the Napoleonic Wars and perhaps on returning from these he realized that he needed to re-evaluate the project. Whatever the explanation, it makes for an unusual frontage. The rear of the building is almost as odd, since a high wall soon cuts off the house – centred on a bow which contains its main staircase – from the rest of the courtyard. The latter features all the usual elements found in proximity to a country house, stables, storerooms, staff accommodation and so forth. Inside old Cappagh, the main entrance leads to a hall at the rear of which climbs the aforementioned principle staircase, with reception rooms to left and right; a number of bedrooms upstairs are accessed either by the main staircase or by other flights of steps at either end of the building. Given its unfinished state, it is easy to understand why the Usshers chose to move to another site and start again in the 1870s, leaving the old house to be used for various purposes. It has stood empty for many years and while the present owners of the property resolutely do their best to maintain the site, inevitably the condition of old Cappagh has deteriorated.
Patrick Hennessy’s 1957 portrait of Elizabeth Bowen presides over a room dedicated to her memory in Doneraile Court, County Cork (her own home, nearby Bowen’s Court, was irresponsibly demolished in 1961). After being closed to the public for the past 25 years, Doneraile Court has once more been taken in hand by the Office of Public Works and officially reopens today. The decoration and furnishing of the ground floor rooms displays terrific flair, with a wonderful mixture of items, some in state ownership, others on loan from private collections, all blended together with aplomb. Having woken from its quarter-century slumber, Doneraile Court proves to be the sleeping beauty of Irish country houses: visits are strongly urged.