The shell of Summerhill, County Mayo, a house that retained its roof within living memory. Summerhill is believed to have been built in the 1770s for the Palmer family its five-bay façade centred on a pedimented breakfront with first-floor Venetian window. The site on raised ground was chosen to provide a view down towards the Palmerstown river beside which stand the ruins of the Dominican Rathfran Friary. Today the two complexes rival each other in decay.
‘When Hubert and I were children and after we grew up, we lived at Temple Alice. Temple Alice had been built by Mummie’s ancestor, before he inherited his title and estates. He built the house for his bride, and he gave it her name. Now, the title extinct and the estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house, came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property. Mummie loved gardening. On fine days she would work in the woodland garden, taking the gardener away from his proper duties among the vegetables. On wet days, she spent hours of time in the endless, heatless, tumbling-down greenhouses, which had once sheltered peaches and nectarines and stephanotis. One vine survived – she knew how to prune it and thin its grapes, muscatels. Papa loved them.’
From Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (1981)
When Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour was adapted for television in 1983, Coolmore, County Cork – shown in today’s photographs – served as the fictional Temple Alice. A castle was first built here in the 12th century by the Anglo-Norman de Cogans after they had settled in this part of the country. In the 1650s the land on which the castle stood passed into the ownership of William Hodder who lived in the building. Subsequently it came into the possession of John Newenham, who may have bought the estate or inherited it as his wife Jane was a member of the Hodder family. The Newenhams are also of Norman origin: an ancestor John Newenham de Newenham, was one of the commissioners who carried out the Domesday survey for William the Conqueror in the 1080s. John Newenham settled in Cork in the 17th century, serving as Sheriff of Cork in 1665 and Mayor of the city six years later. After acquiring Coolmore, he seems to have demolished the old castle and replaced it with a more comfortable house. An extant estate map dated 1760 shows this to have been of five bays and two storeys over dormered attic. On either side, long service blocks ran forward to create a substantial forecourt. The next couple of generations prospered after making judicious family connections. John and Jane Newenham’s son Thomas married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Blackhall, one-time Lord Mayor of Dublin, after whom Blackhall Place in the capital is named. In turn their son William married Dorothea, daughter and heiress of Edward Worth, a physician, politician and bibliophile: in 1733 his library was bequeathed to Dr Steevens’ Hospital, where it remains to the present day. The next generation also married well (and twice) which meant that there were ample funds in the 1780s for the old building at Coolmore to be demolished and replaced by the present, larger house of six bays with a two-bay breakfront, and of three storeys over raised basement, the whole centred on a pedimented doorcase flanked by Doric columns and with the family arms carved into the tympanum.
One of William and Dorothea Newenham’s younger children was the 18th century politician Sir Edward Newenham, remembered today for his ardent support of the American colonists. As a result of the latter he came into contact and had extensive correspondence with Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de la Fayette and Washington. The last of these Newenham especially admired, calling him ‘the Greatest ornament of this century.’ Likewise Washington wrote ‘To stand well in the estimation of good men, & honest patriots, whether of this or that clime, or of this or that political way of thinking, has ever been a favorite wish of mine; & to have obtained, by such pursuits as duty to my Country; & the rights of mankind rendered indispensably necessary, the plaudit of Sir Edwd Newenham, will not be among my smallest felicities.’ Despite aspirations to do so, the two men never met (although one of Newenham’s sons-in-law did stay with Washington at his country estate, Mount Vernon, Virginia in 1786) but the Irishman commemorated the American at his own residence, Belcamp on the outskirts of Dublin. Here he not only had a room containing busts of, among others, Washington and la Fayette but in the grounds of the house he raised a monument to Washington. Dating from 1778 and believed to be the earliest such tribute to the general (and the only one erected in his lifetime), it is a two-storey square tower with crenellations bearing the following, now-lost inscription: ‘Oh, ill-fated Britain! The folly of Lexington and Concord will rend asunder and forever disjoin America from thy empire.’ Belcamp and its Washington monument are themselves today in as perilous condition as was the link between America and Britain: the house and grounds have been extensively vandalized in recent years, thereby imperiling this critical association between the respective campaigns for independent government on either side of the Atlantic. As for Coolmore, County Cork – the estate where Sir Edward was raised – ironically the year after Good Behaviour was filmed there, the Newenhams, unable to manage the building any longer, sold its contents and moved into a smaller property elsewhere on their land. It has sat empty for the past thirty years and today an old television series offers the best opportunity to appreciate how the house once looked.
‘That old kitchen stove, how my memory clings,
As my thoughts turn back to the savory things
That emerged from its oven, its pots and kettles
When my mother was matron of those relishing victuals.
With what a rattle and clatter and din,
The table was loaded with the brightest of tin.
The fire was given a punch and a poke,
And the quaint stone chimney, how it would smoke!
The embers on the hearth would sparkle and glow
As if for the occasion they were anxious to go
Enthused, as it were, by my mother’s desire,
For she trusted completely on that old stove fire.’
From That Old Kitchen Stove by David Harold Judd (1901). Pictures of the former gate lodge at Magheramenagh Castle, County Fermanagh.
Half a century ago, in 1968, the big house at Kilballyowen, County Limerick was demolished. As its then-owner Lt.-Col. Gerald Vigors de Courcy O’Grady – whose family have been based there for hundreds of years – recalled some time later, ‘The huge rooms were too big to live in; it was impossible to live in a house of that nature. If you could live there in warm conditions – yes. It was just a necessity. No I didn’t just want to leave it empty, so there are no remains. I do not like living near ruins; there are too many around here.’ His wife commented that by the late 1960s the house ‘was in a terrifying state of repair and we did not have the money to fix it. We had thought of selling just the house, but then we were afraid we might lose the land as well. It was a great house that had lost its pride.’ There was no support for the owners and no state interest in the preservation of such properties. And so, like very many others, Kilballyowen came down.
The surname O’Grady derives from the Irish Ó Grádaigh or Ó Gráda, meaning ‘noble’. The O’Grady family originally lived in East County Clare where they were based in the area around Tuamgraney (where they built a tower house adjacent to what is now the oldest centre of continuous religious worship in Ireland, St Cronan’s which dates from the 10th century). During the Middle Ages various O’Gradys frequently held high positions in the Roman Catholic Church. It helped that clerical celibacy was then not much enforced. Thus in 1332 Eoin (or John) O’Grady became Archbishop of Cashel and, in 1366 his son, also called John, became Archbishop of Tuam. In turn, the latter’s son, another John O’Grady, was made Bishop of Elphin in 1405. At the same time they were frequently at war with other families in the area, not least their distant cousins and former allies, the O’Briens who eventually drove the O’Gradys out of Clare. One of the family, a younger son called Hugh O’Grady had in the early 14th century married a daughter of the head of the O Ciarmhaic family in Knockainy in east Limerick and this would lead their descendants to settle at Kilballyowen. There successive male heirs became the head of the family and were known as The O’Grady.
The core of the now-demolished Kilballyowen was a tower house dating from c.1500, around which a house had been built in the first half of the 18th century, and then further extended by a new wing in 1810: in 1837 Samuel Lewis described the property as ‘a handsome modern building in a richly planted demesne.’ The building had a five-bay façade with a two-bay projecting extension to one side: the garden front featured a three-bay breakfront. Nothing of the house remains but the stableyard to the immediate north-west remains. Set around an open court, the four blocks are of almost equal dimensions and contain carriage houses, stalls and accommodation for the employees who would formerly have worked here. Although in poor repair, the buildings still bear testimony to the character of the old house. Had times been different, had it survived even a decade or two longer, might Kilballyowen be standing yet? What happened here also happened right across the country during the 1950s and ‘60s. While better support mechanisms are now in place to provide some assistance, they are relatively modest, thereby leaving much of our stock of historic houses at risk. The story of Kilballyowen, a great house that had lost its pride, is a too-frequent story in Ireland.
Without question the most significant domestic dwelling in the village of Killeagh, County Cork – and accordingly, the most neglected. This five-bay, two-storey house dates from c.1770 and, at least on the exterior, still retains many of its original features. But for how much longer? Planting trees and adding street furniture cannot disguise the fact that this is a building at risk of being permanently lost in the near future.
In Ireland today the name John B Keane is usually associated with a Kerry author of popular stage dramas. In the 19th century however, it would be more likely taken to refer to a successful architect. The date of John Benjamin Keane’s birth is unknown but by 1819-20 he was working as an assistant to Richard Morrison. In 1823 he was listed in Wilson’s Dublin Directory as practising under his own name and for the next two decades enjoyed a busy career. Among his most notable commissions was the design of St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, recently restored after a disastrous fire in 2009, and Queen’s College in Galway (now NUI Galway) in 1845. Keane’s winning design for the latter was described at the time as being ‘ a magnificent edifice in the style of Henry the Eight’s time.’ In addition to such public properties, he also designed a number of private residences, including Magheramenagh Castle, County Fermanagh.
Magheramenagh belonged to a branch of the Johnston family, large numbers of whom had moved from Scotland to this part of the country in the early 17th century. Successive generations lived in the same area of Fermanagh, the estate being inherited in 1833 by James Johnston who five years later married Cecilia, daughter of Thomas Newcomen Edgeworth of County Longford. It would appear that around this time he commissioned from Keane the design of a home for his new bride. The building was much in the style then fashionable, a loose interpretation of Tudor Gothic indicated by the presence of blind gables, polygonal turrets, castellations and finials. Of two storeys other (than a three-floor square tower in the north-east corner) and all faced in crisp limestone, the main entrance was to the north, the southern front looking down on the river Erne. A large conservatory occupied much of the eastern end of the building while the service wing stood to the west, an enfilade of four reception rooms occupying the space between.
Ultimately neither Magheramenagh nor its architect had a happy ending. Keane’s career was wrecked by alcoholism, he fell into debt and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Gaol (a debtor’s prison off Dublin’s south quays: it was demolished in 1975) before dying in 1859. Meanwhile James Johnston had died in 1873 and Magheramenagh passed to his son Robert. He in turn died just nine years later, leaving the estate to his son James Cecil Johnston, then aged less than two. James Cecil would be killed at Gallipoli in August 1915, Magheramenagh then occupied by his widow and two young daughters. Unable to manage, they left the property in 1921 and it was bought as a residence for the local Roman Catholic priest: the following May the house was briefly taken over by the members of the British armed forces. Reverting back to the parish, thereafter it remained in use as a presbytery until the 1950s when abandoned and unroofed. Afterwards a large part of the house was demolished: it can be seen what now remains on the site.