Of the Highest Standard



Townley Hall, County Louth is an Irish country house which has featured here more than once before (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté* « The Irish Aesthete). Without doubt, one of the most perfectly designed buildings in Ireland, it was the result of a happy collaboration between architect Francis Johnston and his client Blayney Townley Balfour – and also, crucially, the latter’s sister Anna Maria Townley Balfour whose involvement in the project has until recently been insufficiently understood and appreciated. The result was a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture, a work of impeccable refinement and flawless taste, with the staircase hall at the centre of the house being one of the masterpieces of late 18th century European architecture. Like all such properties in Ireland, Townley Hall has faced challenges, its future at times uncertain, but the present custodians of the building – the School of Philosophy and Economic Science – have carried out much work on site to ensure the survival of this most-important building in our national heritage. And it has now produced a sumptuous book celebrating the glories of the house and its place in the architectural pantheon, to which the Irish Aesthete has contributed several chapters. The standards of the publication are every bit as high as those of Townley Hall, making this a book of interest to anyone possessed of an aesthetic sensibility.



You can also watch me discuss Townley Hall in a short film made for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art last summer, which is available to view at Townley Hall, Ireland | ICAA Travel Revisited – YouTube

Worth Two Buckets of Gold


Commissioned by Arthur and Sarah Cooper, this is Coopershill, County Sligo. Its design traditionally attributed to amateur architect Francis Bindon, the house is a square block of cut limestone, three storeys over basement and with a particularly handsome Gibbsian doorcase with Venetian window above. Replacing an older property on lower ground and closer to the river Unshin, work on Coopershill began in 1755 and continued for almost 20 years, since it was not completed until 1774. Reputedly Arthur Cooper placed two buckets filled with gold sovereigns on the ground, and this was to be the cost of the property; in the event, more money had to be raised before the work was concluded (Irish landowners of the period almost invariably underestimated the expenditure on a new house).




The interiors of Coopershill indicate rooms were decorated at different periods, probably as further funds became available. There is little plasterwork anywhere, except for a fine frieze in the entrance hall and on the ceiling of the staircase hall to the rear of the building. The latter has delicate Adamesque tendrils scrolling between slim urns, which are also a feature of the deep frieze running below the cornice. As so often in Irish country houses, the first floor bedroom passage is generously wide: it has been proposed that this was to allow women somewhere to walk up and down on the (frequent) days when it was too wet to take exercise outdoors. Whether this is true or not, the wide bedroom landing is a frequent feature of 18th century houses in Ireland. 




Coopershill, County Sligo has remained in the ownership of the same family since first being built in the third quarter of the 18th century; it is now occupied by members of the seventh generation. However, in 1860 Charles William Cooper changed his surname to O’Hara in order to inherit Annaghmore, another estate elsewhere in the same county (see High Victoriana « The Irish Aesthete). For the past half century or so, the O’Haras have been offering accommodation at Coopershill to paying guests.

For the Sake of Symmetry



Another splendid stableyard, this one directly behind the main house at Ballindoolin, County Kildare. Dating from c.1810 when constructed for the Bors, a family of Dutch extraction, the land to the rear rises up, meaning the yard must be approached via a flight of granite steps. Directly ahead is the yard bell sitting atop a pediment, with three arched openings below. That to the left leads to the second yard, for agricultural use, that in the middle is a coach house and that to the right, created to achieve symmetry, reveals a modest entrance behind the double doors. Limestone ashlar is used for window, door and arch openings while the rest of the yard buildings are of limestone rubble visible through the flaking render. 


Very Mannered



The 18th century English polymath Thomas Wright has featured here before because of his rightly-renowned work at Tollymore, County Down (Do the Wright Thing « The Irish Aesthete ), but it is apparent that while in Ireland during the year 1746-47, he also designed a number of other garden buildings elsewhere in the country. One of these is a rustic archway at Belvedere, County Westmeath, which would have been constructed around the same time as the villa here and so commissioned by Robert Rochfort, then Baron Belfield and future first Earl of Belvedere. This extraordinary structure is almost Mannerist in style and, as has been pointed out, would not look out of place in the 16th century Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo: the openings on the facade suggest a giant’s startled face. The arch stands at the end of a long drive from the house and although sometimes thought to have been an entrance lodge, this seems unlikely since its rear – which visitors would have encountered first had it served as a point of arrival to the estate – is unornamented. Clearly therefore the building was meant to close a vista and, since it once held several floors, to offer views back to the main residence and across Lough Ennell: note the wonderful rusticated oriel window on an upper level. 


A Country Retreat



Today known as Mount St Anne’s, this handsome villa was originally called Mount Henry, presumably after Henry Smyth who in the first decade of the 19th century commissioned the building’s design from Sir Richard Morrison: the central recessed entrance with pedimented Ionic portico between bowed bays can also be seen, albeit on a larger scale, on the facade of Lyons, County Kildare, for which Morrison was also responsible. It is unclear whether the now-exposed stone walls were once stuccoed. A wing containing a billiard room was added in 1868 by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon but otherwise few changes were made to the house even after it was acquired by the Presentation order of nuns in the 1930s but some thirty years later, when the Roman Catholic church was going through an expansionist phase, an oratory and other ancillary buildings, none of them of particular architectural merit (or displaying much sympathy with Morrison’s work) were constructed to the rear of the villa. Today Mount St Anne’s is used as a retreat and conference centre.


A Romantic Hideaway



The story is often told that Martinstown, County Kildare was built so as to provide Augustus Frederick FitzGerald, third Duke of Leinster, with a discreet location in which to meet his mistress. Curiously, the name of the duke’s inamorata is never mentioned, nor any further information given about the nature of the affair. Biographical information primarily focuses on his early support for Catholic Emancipation, his loyalty to the Whig party (traditional in the FitzGerald family) as well as his long and close involvement with Freemasonry:  he was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland for 61 years until his death in 1874. In 1818 he married Lady Charlotte Augusta Stanhope, a daughter of the third Earl of Harrington, with whom he had four children. If there were any marital indiscretions, they do not seem ever to have become known in the public realm. 





An estate map of Martinstown dated February 1833 and signed by one W. Clutterbuck, depicts an altogether more modest dwelling house than what can be seen on the site today, little more than a farmhouse (now the kitchen wing). At the time, the property belonged to Robert Borrowes (otherwise Burrows) whose family had moved to Ireland in the late 16th/early 17th century from Devonshire. Robert Borrowes was a younger son of Sir Kildare Dixon Borrowes, fifth baronet, of Barretstown Castle. That house passed to Robert’s older brother, while he was given the nearby Gilltown estate. Martinstown, therefore, was never a primary residence but rather a secondary farm which, according to Clutterbuck’s map, had been heavily planted with trees over the previous 15 years. However, a second extant drawing made in 1840 shows a building much closer in style to that which stands on the site today. The main, two-storey garden front is asymmetrical, heavily ornamented with a series of pinnacled gable-ends, cusped bargeboards and twisted, Tudoresque chimney stacks. Its design has been attributed to English architect Decimus Burton, best-known in this country for his work on the gate lodges of Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Martinstown is altogether more fanciful than those buildings, a late flowering of the Georgian Gothick cottage orné, likely developed as a shooting lodge rather than a venue for romantic ducal rendezvous. 





The main entrance porch on the narrow north-west side of Martinstown has a half-timbered room above it which seems to be one of a number of later additions to the building. The walls of the house’s entrance hall show one of the most recent of such alterations: covered in murals representing an idealised landscape, they were an early commission received by artist Jane Willoughby. From here, visitors enter the central stair hall, decorated in a delightful Tudoresque manner. The west side of the room features a triple-arched arcade with open-work spandrels and a rosette cornice. Doors at either end of this open into the dining room and what is now a study.
As befits a cottage orné, the majority of rooms are cosy with low ceilings. An exception to this is the double-height drawing room with coved ceiling, added to the house in the 1870s when Martinstown was let to members of the British army then in residence just a few miles away on the Curragh: its scale is substantially larger than any other space in the building: the upper part of the walls here were painted with garlands of leaves and ribbons by another artist, Phillipa Bayliss.
Today available to rent for weddings and other events, during the last century Martinstown passed through several hands, the most notorious being those of Austrian-born Otto Skorzeny, a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the German Waffen-SS during the Second World War. Skorzeny and his wife, who were then living in Spain, visited Ireland for the first time in 1957 and two years later, they bought Martinstown and 168 acres of land from its then-owner Major Richard Turner, for £7,500. However, although they initially paid regular visits to the property, the couple were never able to secure residents’ visas from the Irish government and spent little time here after 1963, selling the place in 1971. Today the property acts as both a family home to the present owners, and as a popular venue for weddings: somewhere romantic for couples to marry rather than meet for illicit trysts. 


Seeking Asylum



After Monday’s post about Skiddy’s Almshouses in Cork, here is a similar institution in Kilkenny city: St James’s Asylum. This dates from 1803 when established by James Switzer (then spelled Switsir), a Quaker builder responsible for constructing the nearby military barracks on land provided by the Earl of Ormond; seemingly, when he had completed this job, there was sufficient material left over to erect the almshouse. A charity was accordingly established by Act of Parliament, and the relevant deeds stated that there were to be 20 beneficiaries, all female, twelve Protestant and eight Roman Catholic. Furthermore, the residents were to be ‘decent and respectable persons, the widows or daughters of respectable persons resident in the county or city of Kilkenny or county of Carlow for ten years or more.’ To ensure decent respectability, none of the women who secured placed could ever have been a servant, ‘or the widow or daughter or niece of a servant.’ Today run by a charity, the building is of fifteen bays and two storeys with a central pedimented three-bay breakfront. Unfortunately, during a renovation of the premises, uPVC windows were installed to replace the six-over-six timber sash older models. Two other features are notable, the first being a large statue of the asylum’s founder looming over the garden from his recessed stone niche; the figure here was carved by Benjamin Schrowder, otherwise known for having assisted Edward Smyth in carving the emblematic keystones on the Custom House, Dublin. And then there is the splendid stone gateway which would not be out of place at the entrance to a country house, not least because the pedimented outer sections suggest a pair of identical lodges.


Alms and the Man



On May 28th 1584, Stephen Skiddy, a Cork wine merchant, made his will in which he left a bequest for the establishment of an almshouse in the city, leaving provision that out of certain rents, the Vintners of the City of London would annually pay the sum of £24 to be distributed among the property’s residents, who could either Catholic or Protestant: this payment began (and has continued ever since) following the death of Skiddy’s death in 1606. Initially, the almshouse occupied a site close to the city’s North Gate Bridge, but at the beginning of the 18th century a decision was taken to move to higher ground, the old location being considered ‘too narrow & incommodious for want of good air.’ This move was probably encouraged by a further bequest made in 1717 by one Roger Bettridge. Work began in 1718 and was completed the following year.





The site chosen for the new development of Skiddy’s Almshouses was one of a number of religious and charitable foundations in this part of the city and was constructed immediately adjacent to the Green Coat Hospital School, so-called because that was the colour of the pupils’ uniform. Founded in 1715, the school was primarily the brainchild of the Rev Henry Maule, then rector of the adjacent St Anne’s church (he would subsequently rise through the ranks of the Church of Ireland, eventually becoming Bishop of Meath). A charity school, it was intended to provide forty poor children – 20 boys and 20 girls between the ages of seven and 12 – with an elementary education of reading, writing and arithmetic combined with appropriate vocational training in areas such as spinning and weaving. As the print above shows, the building was U-shaped with two three-bay wings coming forward to create a courtyard, closed with gates: the statue of a boy stood on top of one gatepost, of a girl on the other. Popularly known as ‘Bob’ and ‘Joan’, both were made of lead and clad in green coats: these figures are today kept in the tower of St Anne’s. The school operated over the next two centuries, and when Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a parliamentary grant meant the number of pupils had increased to 40 boys and 28 girls. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Green Coat School was amalgamated with other parochial schools by the City of Cork Church School Board but continued to function as a primary school for girls, as well as location for a Sunday school. Unfortunately the building was demolished in 1955. A budget hostel now occupies the site.





Skiddy’s Almshouse was constructed directly to the rear of the Green Coat School and might have suffered the same fate as that building. In 1963 the charity’s trustees opened new accommodation on the southern outskirts of the city, and sold the old almshouses to the nearby North Infirmary Hospital, then run by an order of nuns. The hospital proposed to demolish the old property and erect a block for nurses’ accommodation on the site. This caused sufficient outrage that a new organisation, the Cork Preservation Society, was established to fight for the survival of Skiddy’s Almshouses. The campaign was sufficiently successful that the CPS was able to embark on a restoration of the building, overseen by architect Frank Murphy and completed in 1975: in that year, it won the RIAI National Award for Architecture and a Europa Nostra Medal. In 2000, the CPS sold the almshouses to a charity, the Social Housing Development Company which embarked on a second restoration, converting the building into 14 social housing units, six with two bedrooms and eight with one bedroom. This continues to the present. Today Skiddy’s Almshouses is Cork city’s oldest inhabited building, and proof that there is absolutely no need to demolish old housing stock, which can be refurbished to meet present day requirements. Incidentally, the North Infirmary Hospital, which in the 1960s wanted to demolish the almshouses, was closed twenty years later and that building, after lying vacant for some time, is now an hotel.


Episcopal



After the last post about the former Bishop’s Palace in Clogher, County Tyrone, here is a view of St Macartan’s, the cathedral which justified having an episcopal residence in this small Ulster village. There appear to be no traces of the early Christian cathedral founded here, according to tradition, in 490 on the instructions of St Patrick, nor of its medieval successor which by 1622 was described as ‘altogether ruinous’ and incapable of bearing a roof. Instead, the building dates from 1744 when commissioned by Bishop John Stearne from the little-known architect James Martin (who died the following year). Austerely symmetrical in design, the cruciform building has pedimented gables on the transepts and chancel, also on the west front but this is then topped by a square belfry tower with obelisks finials. Both the entrance door and the windows are round-headed, although a Venetian window can be found at the east end of the building. The surrounding graveyard has some handsome tombstones indicating this has long been used as a burial site.


A Good Showish Figure



The pretty Doric gatelodge which stands at the entrance to what was formerly the Bishop’s Palace in Clogher, County Tyrone. Mrs Delany, who was close friends of the then-Bishop Robert Clayton and his wife, paid a visit to the place in August 1748 when she wrote ‘this house is large and makes a good showish figure; but there is a great loss of room by ill-contrivance within doors.’ Perhaps that is why it was replaced by the building seen today, erected on the site. This was commissioned in the early 19th century by Bishop Lord John George Beresford (although the wings may be survivors of the earlier palace) and designed by Dublin architect David Henry. The facade is of seven bays and three storeys over basement, with a three-bay pediment and a large Doric porch on the ground floor. The land immediately behind the house drops away steeply to give views of what remains of the 18th century landscaped park, which can be seen from a high arcaded terrace (alas, not accessible on a recent visit). Clogher is a tiny village, dominated by the former palace and the small cathedral which sits to its immediate west. Inevitably, in the aftermath of the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the house was sold to a private owner and then, in 1922, bought by the Roman Catholic Church and turned into a convent. Today it is a residential care home.