An entrance into the former demesne of Affane, County Waterford. The core of the house here dated from the 17th century but had a new front added in the first half of the 19th century with canted bows on either side of the entrance. These ashlar gateposts with screen walls on either side and arched pedestrian openings on either side were probably erected around the same time. Once leading towards the main building, now they go nowhere but provide a reminder of what used to be here: the house itself is a ruined shell.
A County Wexford property formerly known as Grange, but now called Bannow House is thought to date from the mid-1830s when built for Thomas Boyce, although it work may have been initiated a couple of decades earlier by his father Samuel: the Boyce family had settled in the area in the 17th century. Of two storeys, the south-facing facade is of eight bays, the two centre ones breaking forward, with the entrance marked by a fine portico approached by four granite steps and featuring four Ionic columns. Curiously, the rear of the house is lopsided: while the west side runs back six bays, that to the east is more shallow, and partially hidden behind a high screen wall, suggesting a section of the building here was at some date demolished. In any case, an opening in that wall leads to a large and handsome yard constructed, like so many buildings in this part of the country, of local granite.
One suspects that few people today are aware of, let alone have read, the works of Constantia Maxwell who in the middle of the last century was probably the best-known woman writing on Irish history. This is a pity, because she was a first-rate stylist and her books impart a great deal of information in an agreeable fashion, which is often not the case today. Furthermore, she is worthy of study in her own right, being something of an academic pioneer. The daughter of an ophthalmic surgeon, she was born in Dublin in 1886 and was among the first women to be admitted to Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate (the college had been exclusively male until 1904). In 1909, she became the first woman to join the institution’s academic staff when appointed a lecturer in modern history. Thirty years later, she was the first woman to be made a professor at TCD, when given a chair in economic history and then, when appointed to the Lecky Professorship of History, was again the first woman to hold this chair. Without question, she was an impressive trailblazer, and not just thanks to her ascent of the academic hierarchy. In some respects, not least owing to her interest in Ireland during the 18th century, Maxwell might be considered the successor to Froude and Lecky, but she is less polemical than either of them, less determined to represent a particular point of view, more desirous to engage and hold the reader’s attention. Her knowledge was prodigious – the bibliography for Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges (of which more below) runs to some 22 pages – but it was lightly worn. There are no stodgy passages in her books, they race along from one anecdote to the next, so that knowledge is shared with the lightest of touches. Her work has sometimes been criticised for concentrating on the ruling elite of the Georgian period, but at the time this was the case with almost anyone writing about the period: history was still perceived as belonging to the victors. Furthermore, as will be seen, she was keenly aware of and sympathetic towards the dreadful misfortunes experienced by the poor during the period under consideration, so censure levelled at her is not altogether fair. The college where she taught for so long offers a scholarship in her name, but surely the time has come for a revival of interest in Constantia Maxwell, and the republication of her books.
Constantia Maxwell enjoyed popular success in 1936 with the publication of Dublin under the Georges, which explored all aspects of the city’s development from 1714 to 1830. In the space of some 300 pages, she celebrated Dublin’s golden age while not overlooking the misery that could be found beneath its glittering surface: an entire chapter is devoted to ‘Life of the Poor’ in which she cites many contemporary visitors to the city. When the English MP John Curwen came in 1818 while he declared ‘the style and beauty of Dublin have greatly surpassed my expectations,’ at the same time he could not but note ‘poverty, disease, and wretchedness exist in every great town, but in Dublin the misery is indescribable.’ Maxwell also quotes from the likes of the Rev James Whitelaw who recounted only too vividly the filth and squalor in which many of the city’s occupants lived. We are inclined to imagine tenements as being the product of the late 19th/early 20th centuries but almost 100 years earlier Whitelaw could write of frequently finding ‘from ten to sixteen persons, of all ages and sexes, in a room not 15 feet square, stretched on a wad of filthy straw swarming with vermin, and without any covering, save the wretched rags that constituted their wearing apparel.’ But of course Maxwell also devoted much attention to the glories of the era, reporting on the lives of the wealthy and the splendid residences they constructed for themselves. Furthermore she took time to look at how those residences were furnished and decorated, thanks to the many specialist craftsmen who flourished owing to the patronage of the domestic market. Everything from wool and linen production to glass and cabinet making was explored in her text, and again the breadth of the author’s reading is impressive; there seem to be no available sources she had not examined. It’s worth remembering that when Maxwell wrote her book, far less relevant material had been placed in the public domain, and far less research into it undertaken. As in so much else, she was a pioneer and almost everyone else who followed, from Maurice Craig onwards, was indebted to her.
Following on from the success of Dublin under the Georges, in 1940 Constantia Maxwell published Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges. This follows much the same format as its predecessor and demonstrates the same depth of knowledge presented in an equally engaging format. Maxwell understood the advantages of the well-told anecdote, whether writing of the foibles of the gentry or the misfortunes of the peasantry. With regard to the latter, she also demonstrated her inherent empathy, observing that her readers ‘need scarcely be reminded that the Irish peasant in the eighteenth century had none of the advantages of the small-holder in England. He had no permanent interest in the soil, because he had no security of tenure. He had no capital to spend upon improvements, and very little knowledge of agriculture. He was the product of an evil land system established by conquest, under which the landlord, who could never feel absolutely secure in the midst of an alien population, looked mainly for immediate profits.’ The consequences of this system were then thoroughly examined over the course of the pages that followed. One chapter of particular interest is devoted to a study of Ireland’s provincial towns during the 18th century. So much attention is paid to Dublin’s growth at the time, it is easy to forget that many other urban centres underwent expansion and improvement from the early 1700s onwards. Many of these became centres of industry and trade, such as Clonmel, County Tipperary, described by John Wesley in 1756 as ‘the pleasantest town beyond all comparison which I have yet seen in Ireland.’ and Cork city which Arthur Young thought displayed ‘by much the most animated scene of shipping in all Ireland.’ Incidentally, with regard to this specific subject, David Dickson – who has already written so eloquently on the developments of both Dublin and Cork – is due to publish his next work The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation in May (Yale University Press). In the meantime, for those who have yet to engage with Constantia Maxwell, an investigation of her work is encouraged. Despite the passage of many decades since the books’ first appearance, they continue to engage and inform.
Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary dates from c.1745 but the house was extensively remodelled in the second half of the 1860s and it was at that time that the first-floor landing was given its present appearance. Exceptionally wide, the space is generously lit by a circular glazed dome resting on a sequence of shallow arches. These are supported by what appear to be marble columns. In fact, the latter are only painted and one quirky detail is that the surface pattern of each column features a number of human profiles, said to represent members of the Trench family who were then owners of the property.
Located on high ground some distance from the main house at Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary: the remains of what appears to be an 18th century folly, perhaps once serving as a tea house. Constructed from uncut stone, the partially-restored building is circular with arched openings of three sides and a domed roof. What remains of a wall on the upper section suggests this might once have served as a viewing platform, offering visitors the opportunity to admire the surrounding countryside. Francis Bindon has long been credited as architect for Sopwell Hall, so might he have been responsible for the design of this structure also?
Two weeks ago, the fifth and final volume of records published in 1913 by Ireland’s original Georgian Society was discussed here. That might have been the end of such documentation of this country’s 18th century architectural heritage in the years prior to the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. But in 1915 two men decided that more research into Irish country houses was required, and so produced a volume called Georgian Mansions in Ireland. The individuals involved, Page Lawrence Dickinson and Thomas Ulick Sadleir, are of some interest. Born in 1881 and 1882 respectively, both were sons of clergymen, Sadleir’s father being a chaplain to the army stationed at the Curragh Camp, County Kildare. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, Sadleir junior was called to the Irish bar in 1906 and practised on the Leinster circuit for the next ten years. But his real passion was genealogy and even while a student he was working on an unpaid basis in the Office of the Ulster King of Arms at Dublin Castle. In 1915, the year in which Georgian Mansions in Ireland appeared, he was appointed registrar of the Order of St. Patrick at the Office of Arms, becoming Deputy Ulster in 1921, although due to the extensive absences of his superior he was in effect in charge and remained so until 1943 when the Office of Arms was finally transferred to the control of the Irish State. He subsequently became librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, remaining there until his death in 1957. As for Dickinson, he was a son of the Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. In his late teens, he was apprenticed to architect Richard Caulfield Orpen (a brother of the painter William Orpen) with whom he then went into partnership. But he seems to have been as much a writer as an architect, being a frequent contributor to the Irish Builder (of such pieces as ‘Working class homes. Is the present standard reasonable?’ in January 1923, and ‘Competitions. Should they be abolished?’ in November 1924). He was clearly out of sympathy with post-Independence Ireland and for many years lived in England, his nostalgia for the ancien régime apparent in a memoir published in 1929, The Dublin of Yesterday, which as can be imagined was not well received in this country. Nevertheless he did return here, dying at his daughter’s house in County Wicklow in 1958.
In their Preface to Georgian Mansions in Ireland, Sadleir and Dickinson rightly acknowledge the work undertaken by the earlier Georgian Society, but note that the fifth volume only examined a few 18th century houses found throughout the country, thereby necessitating their own enterprise. In addition, they observed that while many of Dublin’s great houses had fallen into disrepair, ‘the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rack-rent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
Interestingly, Sadleir and Dickinson remark that Irish country houses seldom held valuable china, but ‘good pictures, plate and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon.’ Waxing poetic, they then write, ‘How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni or that fashionable Irish artist, Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entrail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Desart Court, County Kilkenny: burnt down by the IRA, February 1923
The main body of text in Georgian Mansions in Ireland is devoted to study of 17 houses (some given more attention than others). Of these, 11 still stand, three remaining in the hands of the original owners’ descendants and another three in private hands, albeit not those of the original family. Two (in Northern Ireland) are National Trust properties, one is an hotel, one belongs to a public company and one has become part of a national institution. Of the losses, two – Bessborough and Desart Court, both in County Kilkenny – occurred just a few years after the book was published, victims of the campaign waged against such buildings and their owners during the troubles of the early 1920s, one – Heywood, County Laois – was lost owing to an accidental fire in 1950 and two – Platten Hall, County Meath and Turvey, County Dublin – were left to suffer years of neglect before being pulled down.
Despite their optimistic tone about the state of such houses, the authors of Georgian Mansions in Ireland seem to have had an instinctive awareness of impending threat to the buildings’ future, since they made a point of recording not just architectural but also decorative details, describing – and photographing – plasterwork and paintings, chimneypieces and contents of entire rooms, thereby leaving us a detailed record of how such places looked just over a century ago. Occasionally, as with Curraghmore, County Waterford, little has changed during the intervening period, but more often, even if the house still stands, its entire furnishings have been lost or else horribly culled. Again, we owe Sadleir and Dickinson a debt of gratitude for providing us with this invaluable legacy, an opportunity to examine how Irish country houses were once decorated and occupied.
The remains of a former estate at Clogher in County Cork. In 1837 Samuel Lewis describes the property as belonging to one ‘G. Bond Low, Esq.’ but provides no further details. The house itself, now a ruin, dates from the early 19th century and is of three stories and five bays. A sense of its character is provided by what survives: a pair of handsome limestone gate posts, beside one of which is a derelict lodge. Not far inside the entrance is a very fine yard, typical of the kind then being erected across the country and, despite neglect, still so sturdy that it begs for restoration: the perfect setting for a number of courtyard dwellings, should someone with sufficient imagination (and funds) be prepared to take on the task.
Two weeks ago, this site discussed the first four volumes of records published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society, established in 1908. The organisation declared from the start an intention that it should exist for a few years only, during which this series would be issued annually as a visual account of Dublin’s architectural heritage, particularly of buildings dating from the 18th century. However, for the final publication, which appeared in 1913, the society ventured outside the capital to explore historic houses around the rest of the country. As the Introduction explained, ‘the Committee thought they would make this fifth volume more interesting by going abroad through Ireland, and examining in the light of prominent examples, how far the Georgian architecture of country houses in Ireland corresponded with that of the capital during this period. In most cases, gentlemen had a hôtel (as the French would call it) in the city which they used especially when they came up to attend the Irish Parliament.’ The text goes on to note that in many instances, either the town or country house has since been lost, in the case of the latter claiming ‘the disappearance was due, not to neglect or poverty, but to wealth and a change of taste.’ It soon becomes evident that the writer(s) of this text did not care for the previous century’s Gothic revival, regarding the work of Francis Johnston and the Morrisons père et fils with a certain disapproval and commenting ‘even these early nineteenth-century houses, which were not Gothic, differ so completely in style from the work of the eighteenth century, that anyone may recognise it at first sight.’
Whether or not one agrees with the fifth volume’s judgemental tone about Irish country houses built later than 1800, the work itself is an invaluable document for several reasons. The first is that it includes photographs and drawings of buildings since lost, quite a lot of them within a decade during the years of Ireland’s War of Independence and Civil War. In some instances, they are almost the only visual evidence of these houses that we still possess. Just as importantly, but perhaps less appreciated, these pictures show how such houses were decorated and furnished at the time. Again, this information is quite priceless since almost without exception the contents of such properties has since been lost or dispersed. For a small number, inventories survive of their contents and for others, lists were compiled by owners when applying for compensation following their houses destruction during the aforementioned years of upheaval. But nothing compares with a photograph, showing individual items in situ and giving us a better understanding than any document could of how such a building functioned. Another helpful feature of this volume is the ‘Catalogue of Georgian Houses in Ireland’, which is a list of such buildings in each county in 1913. It is, of course, far from being complete, and reflects the compilers’ prejudices towards post-1800 houses. Nevertheless, the catalogue provides a reader with ample information, since each entry includes not just the name of the property, but also – where known – the architect and date of construction, original and then owner, sources of information about the place (such as references in earlier published accounts) and finally what is described as ‘particulars.’ The last of these is the most tantalising of all, since it often contains details of houses long-since lost. Few people today, for example, are likely to have heard of Pennyville, otherwise called Croydon Park, which stood in Clontarf, County Dublin and which, according to the catalogue’s compilers was an ‘early house, with very thick walls, and long rooms opening off one another. Drawing-room has coved rococo frieze.’ A photograph exists of James Larkin and members of the Irish Citizen Army drilling in front of Croydon Park in 1914: the house was demolished in the 1920s as part of the Marino housing scheme. Also largely forgotten: Hortland, County Kildare, a house dating from c.1748. Believed to have been designed by Richard Castle, and built for Josiah Hort, Archbishop of Tuam, according to the catalogue the building contained ‘Staircase in side hall, similar to No.20 Kildare St., Dublin [also attributed to Castle], and deep cornice above. State bedroom with coved ceiling. Good mantel in drawing room, in two marbles and carved centre panel, Diana with dog, &c. Cut-stone doorway, with Ionic columns in entablatures.’ The house was subsequently demolished.
The fifth volume pays particular attention to nine houses, the majority of which are still standing and only one, Summerhill, County Meath, discussed here in the past (see My Name is Ozymandias « The Irish Aesthete) has been been entirely lost. Of the others, two – Castletown, County Kildare and Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin – are in state ownership, one managed by a trust (Russborough, County Wicklow), one converted into an hotel (Carton, County Kildare) and the other four remain in private ownership, although only one of these still occupied by descendants of the original family, namely Mount Ievers, County Clare (discussed here also some time ago, see A Place of Magic « The Irish Aesthete). How, one wonders, do these statistics compare to those of other countries? And, as already mentioned, another feature of the texts – and their accompanying images – is the information they provide on the properties’ contents at the time since almost without exception these have since been dispersed/lost/destroyed. Among the greatest losses was a superlative panelled mid-18th century saloon formerly in Rossanagh, County Wicklow. Dismantled and removed from the building in the 1920s and sold out of the country, its subsequent fate is unclear, perhaps blown to pieces in a London bombing during the Second World War, perhaps still surviving somewhere in the United States but certainly no longer in its country of origin. Such, regrettably, has too often been the story of our heritage.
In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.
Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation.
Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today.
The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on change.org (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood · Change.org)
As already mentioned, the photographs and drawings reproduced in successive volumes published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society during the first years of the last century are often our only record of how Dublin then looked. In particular, these images show many buildings which, over the past 100 years, have been – in many cases needlessly and recklessly – destroyed. One of the reasons why Desmond and Mariga Guinness revived the Irish Georgian Society in 1958 was precisely because they saw fine 18th century houses – such as those in Kildare Place and Dominick Street – being torn down, without any record being kept of how these properties looked. Indeed, the body which should be the foremost custodian and fiercest defender of the city’s architectural heritage, namely Dublin City Council (formerly Dublin Corporation) has instead been consistently negligent in caring for the city’s fabric, in keeping a proper record of its historic architecture and in preserving important parts of buildings that have perforce been demolished. Instead, such work has been left either to charitable organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Architectural Archive, or concerned individuals like Peter Pearson and others. As demonstrated by the recent, and ongoing saga over the future of the city’s Iveagh Markets – as well as the shameful decades-long neglect of O’Connell Street, the lengthy failure to redevelop the historic Mary’s Lane market site, the near-20 year wait to restore a terrace of houses on the north side of Parnell Square (even more important after the grotesque fiasco of a so-called new ‘Cultural Quarter’ failed to materialise) and so forth – the city council continues to show scant concern for ensuring the survival of historic Dublin. Hence the ongoing need today for the same imagination and initiative shown by the original Georgian Society back in 1908. Little, it seems, has changed over the past 110-plus years.