On February 1st next it will be 95 years since Moore Hall, County Mayo was needlessly burnt by a group of anti-treaty forces during the Civil War. Since then the building has stood empty and falling ever further into ruin. Moore Hall’s history was discussed here some time ago, (see When Moore is Less, June 30th 2014), and at the time it looked as though the house, dating from the 1790s, had little viable future. For many years the surrounding land has been under the control of Coillte, the state-sponsored forestry company, which displayed no interest in the historic property for which it was responsible. However, yesterday Mayo County Council announced it had purchased Moore Hall and 80 acres. The council proposes ‘to develop the estate as a nationally important nature reserve and tourism attraction’, its chief executive declaring this will ‘ensure that the natural, built and cultural heritage of Moorehall is protected yet developed and managed in a sustainable manner for current and future generations.’ Further details have yet to be provided, but one initiative Moore Hall’s new owners could immediately undertake is to clear away the trees that now grow almost up to the front door, thereby reopening the view to Lough Carra and explaining why the house was built on this site.
Some time ago the European Commission designated 2018 as European Year of Cultural Heritage. According to the commission’s website, ‘Heritage is our cultural identity, values and traditions that we have inherited from previous generations, live with today, and pass on to future generations. It includes buildings, monuments, historical and archaeological sites, museum objects, our customs, sports, language, music, dance, folklore, crafts and skills, and natural heritage, such as landscapes, wildlife habitats and biodiversity.’
In this country, the Heritage Council has been charged with coordinating and promoting the year’s programme. The council has chosen as a theme for Ireland ‘Make a Connection’ intended ‘to deepen the connection between people and heritage, and build a legacy of increased public engagement.’ Engagement is critical, particularly with regard to our historic buildings. Since 2016 the Heritage Council has run an ‘Adopt a Monument’ scheme but the take-up has been relatively small: just seven projects were added last year. All over Ireland there are many sites which have fallen into neglect and dereliction. Frequently they can be found in the centre of towns such as the two shown today, both of which are in County Galway and have featured here before. Above is St John’s, the former Church of Ireland church in Ballymoe: dating from 1832 it has been remorselessly vandalised. The same is true of the building below, St Brigid’s, the original Roman Catholic church in Portumna, built in 1825. When a new church was constructed in the 1950s, this property served for a time as a sports hall but has now been abandoned and suffered accordingly.
There are many buildings such as these standing empty and forlorn. If the European Year of Cultural Heritage is to have any long-term impact, a concerted effort must be made to engage local people’s interest in and concern for the architectural legacy of their own area. The coming twelve months offer an opportunity which may not occur again. Making a Connection can make a difference.
Today’s building is decidedly odd. Heathfield, County Cork dates from c.1780 and as far as the interior is concerned, follows the period’s standard design and layout. Its exterior, on the other hand, is distinctly non-conformist. The entrance front, although facing east, is a blank rubble wall except for one small door placed off-centre. A wing, now ruinous, stands on the north-east corner: might there once have been another on the other side of the façade, thereby creating a miniature Palladian house? Meanwhile the weather-slated rear elevation likewise has just a single point of entry – at basement level – and only two windows (one now blocked) placed on the upper floor. Of the two other sides, that facing north likewise features a basement door as well as a large arched window to light the return on the staircase, while that looking south has pairs of substantial six-over-six sash windows on all three floors. What can be the explanation for such an odd arrangement which must have made the rooms inside rather dark? Did the original builder fear civil disturbance, and therefore minimise points of access to the building? At a time when increased fenestration was becoming the norm, it is hard to explain why, other than for reasons of defence, such limited access to natural light would have been deemed acceptable.
Heathfield is thought to have been built by a branch of the Lane family who lived not far away in a house called Arlinstown. It has also been proposed that the property’s name derives from George Augustus Eliott, created Baron Heathfield in 1787, a career soldier who briefly served as Commander-in-Chief in Ireland in 1774-5 but this seems rather unlikely. A more probable explanation is that Heathfield is a variant of Heathview, the name of a house near Kanturk owned by the Bastable family. By 1818 Heathfield was occupied by one Henry Bastable who appears to have lived there with his family for at least the next twenty years during which time he served as a magistrate in Kinsale and on the Cork Grand Jury, as well as being a member of the local Board of Guardians.
Heathfield’s defensive character would serve it well in the mid-1830s when County Cork experienced considerable disturbance during the Tithe Wars. The campaign against paying money to the Church of Ireland led to the re-emergence of rural secret societies, members of which roved through the countryside at night, attacking houses and demanding the surrender of food, arms and money. In March 1834 Henry Bastable was woken by a large group of men surrounding Heathfield and calling on him to hand over any weapons he might have. From his bedroom window he advised there was only one gun in the house, which they insisted he hand over. Going downstairs to a lower window he duly proffered the gun, but muzzle first: the men outside, fearing he might fire on them as they approached to take the weapon, obliged him to pass over the gun handle first. Next they wanted money, initially seeking a sum of £5. After some negotiation, 50 shillings was agreed upon and given to them. The group then departed, but returned a short time later to give back the gun: Henry Bastable believed this was because it was a new kind of device, the operating mechanism unfamiliar – and therefore of no use – to his nocturnal visitors.
From the mid-19th century onwards, Heathfield was occupied by a succession of different tenants and owners. In 1850 the house was briefly let to a Michael Buck who in turn sublet it to one William Dixon. Subsequently the property was taken by the English-born William Sillifant, who undertook improvements on the land, having bought Heathfield from the Bastables in 1878 for £1,350. In 1890 it was reported that significant malicious damage had been done to the pillars and gates at the entrance to Heathfield. While the Cork Constitution, a staunchly Unionist newspaper, proposed this was because Sillifant was English, a more likely explanation is that he had incurred the wrath of many neighbours by taking them to court for minor offences such as lifestock straying onto his land. As a result, he was unpopular locally.
Heathfield was sold by William Sillifant’s widow in 1905 and changed hands a further three times in the last century before being bought by the family of the present owners. The house was occupied until the 1970s but has since fallen into a poor condition. The dining room floor has completely collapsed and other parts of the building are vulnerable but enough survives to show it was evidently built for a gentleman farmer who wished to emulate the style of living enjoyed by wealthier members of society. In its design, however, Heathfield is decidedly odd.
Many thanks to Fergal Browne for his kind help with the history of Heathfield.
A blocked doorcase in the former farmyard at Grangemore, County Westmeath. The main house here, now also a ruin, was built in the opening years of the 19th century by a member of the Fetherston family: it later passed by marriage to the Briscoes. During the last century what remained of what was once a substantial estate fell into decline, the house standing empty for periods until it was stripped of disposable assets and unroofed in the late 1950s. Its shell now stands in the midst of fields, as does the complex of which this doorcase forms a part.
The concept of ‘rural Ireland’ and its preservation are much touted, especially by those who live in the countryside and believe their traditional way of life should be given more attention. In practice however little has been done to ensure the traditional appearance of rural Ireland is preserved. Across the country old houses are abandoned, their replacements – often built on sites immediately adjacent to an abandoned property – looking no different from those found in Britain or the United States. This cottage in County Meath, although habitable until recently, has now been left to fall into ruin.
Buildings frequently appear on this site with the information that they are ‘listed for protection.’ This is a fine phrase, but what does it mean in practice? The Citizens Information Board provides a helpful guide, as follows:
‘A protected structure is a structure that a planning authority considers to be of special interest from an architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical point of view. If you are the owner or occupier of a protected structure, you are legally obliged to prevent it becoming endangered, whether through damage or neglect. This document describes the protection given to these structures under Part IV of the Planning and Development Act 2000.
A structure must be listed on the planning authority’s Record of Protected Structures (RPS) to qualify for protected status under the Act. Each planning authority is obliged to keep a RPS as part of its development plan. The RPS must include every structure in the planning authority’s area which it considers to be of special interest. Inclusion of these structures in the RPS means that their importance is recognised, they are legally protected from harm and all future changes to the structure are controlled and managed through the development control process (for example, planning permission) or by issuing a declaration under Section 57 of the Planning and Development Act 2000.
If a structure is included in the RPS, the protection extends to the interior of the structure; to the land in its curtilage; and to any other structures on that land and their interiors. Curtilage means the land and outbuildings immediately surrounding a structure which is (or was) used for the purposes of the structure. This obligation also applies to all fixtures and features forming part of the interior and exterior of the protected structure or any structure on the grounds attached to it. If there is an urgent need for repairs to a protected structure, a grant may be available under the Structures at Risk Fund.’
‘Owners or occupiers of protected structures are legally required to make sure that the structure does not become endangered through neglect, decay, damage or harm. Generally, if a structure is kept in habitable condition and regular maintenance is carried out (such as cleaning out gutters, repairing missing slates, repainting external timberwork) it should not become endangered.
If a protected structure is endangered, the planning authority can serve a notice on the owner or occupier, requiring them to carry out any work that it considers necessary to protect the structure. The work must be done within 8 weeks of the date of the notice. The planning authority can also service a notice to require the ‘restoration of character’ of the protected structure. This could include removing, changing or replacing any parts of the structure specified in the notice.
Owners or occupiers can make written representations to the planning authority about the terms of the notice. They may request more time or financial help to comply with the notice. In many cases, they may be eligible for a conservation grant. The planning authority will take these representations into account when making their final decision. Owners and occupiers can appeal against the notice to the District Court within 2 weeks of their last response from the planning authority, if they are still not satisfied.
If a notice to prevent a structure from becoming endangered has been ignored, the planning authority can take enforcement action. In the case of endangerment or restoration of character notices, the planning authority can carry out the work itself and recover the costs of the work from the owner or the occupier. In exceptional cases, the planning authority may buy the protected structure from the owner, either by compulsory purchase or by agreement. This would only be done if the planning authority considered it the only way to save a protected structure.
Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, there are penalties for owners or occupiers of protected structures who endanger the structure or who fail to carry out work that has been ordered by the planning authority. If they are found guilty, they could be liable for fines of up to €12.7 million and/or a term of imprisonment of up to 2 years.’
The present legislation concerning protection of listed structures reads well on paper, but how does it perform in practice? The question is pertinent when considering the case of the building shown here today. This is the so-called Penn Castle in Shanagarry, County Cork. The core of the building may be a 15th century tower house built by a branch of the Power family. However in the mid-17th century it passed into the possession of Admiral Sir William Penn whose son, also called William, spent time here in the late 1660s prior to moving to North America where he established what would eventually become the State of Pennsylvania. Penn Castle underwent modifications over the following centuries before in more recent times being acquired by the potter Stephen Pearce. He embarked on an ambitious programme intended to extend the building and create a visitor centre adjacent to his business. Unfortunately in 2008 that business went into receivership and it appears the building has ever since stood empty, incomplete and falling into dereliction.
Penn Castle is listed as a protected structure by Cork County Council, yet it is difficult to see what the authority has done to ensure its protection. To some extent one can sympathise with the council’s predicament. Like equivalents across the state, it has many – often more pressing – claims on time, staff and financial resources to intervene in such situations, of which there are many (the case of Vernon Mount, gutted last year by arsonists, springs to mind). Since 2011 the government has provided assistance through a Structures at Risk Fund (although even this was temporarily suspended in 2014). In theory the fund ought to help. However, in the present year the total amount available – to cover the entire country – is €824,000. Grants may not exceed 80 per cent of project costs and the maximum amount available to any one project is €30,000 (a surprising number of these grants in 2017 have been made to churches). In so far as it is possible to understand, it is up to the owner of a building to apply to the relevant local authority for financial assistance. But what about instances – of which there are a large number – where no assistance is sought? Or where – as was frequently the case during the recent recession – a building falls into limbo owing to the owner’s business failing? Or where, as has also sometimes been seen to happen, the owner would rather the property fell into ruin than be maintained? On those occasions, the relevant local authority is supposed to intervene, but rarely does so. The costs involved in intervention are too high to make it feasible, and there are insufficient trained staff to take charge of such an endeavour. An impression is given that the current legislation on ‘protected structures’ is laudable but unenforceable. On the one hand local authorities are expected to take care of buildings listed for preservation in their area of responsibility, while on the other they possess neither adequate funds nor manpower to do so. Accordingly it must be asked, is the Planning and Development Act 2000 with regard to Protected Structures fit for purpose? And if not, ought it to be revisited and revised so as to ensure better safeguards are put in place for the country’s built heritage? Otherwise it looks like the disparity between theory and practice will continue to grow and properties such as Penn Castle, despite their ‘protected status’, will remain at risk from irreparable neglect.
Over two years ago, this site carried an extensive report on the perilous condition of Carstown Manor, County Louth (see A Lamentable Waste, January 26th 2015). Carstown is of enormous significance because in its present form the building dates from the early 17th century and is accordingly a Jacobean manor: there are almost no such properties extant in Ireland. A pair of carved limestone plaques, one at the centre of a massive chimney piece in what would have been the main reception room, the other directly above the entrance door carry the same details, namely the date 1612, a coat of arms combining those of two families, and the initials OP and KH. The latter stand for Oliver Plunkett and his wife Katherine Hussey, both members of prominent local dynasties. The plaques may be presumed to indicate either the couple’s marriage or the date on which they completed work of some kind here. It has long been proposed that the core of Carstown is a late 15th/early 16th century tower house occupying what are today the two eastern bays of the house. However, in 2011 archaeology graduate Michael Corcoran published a paper suggesting that Carstown had begun as a late-mediaeval gabled house. If so, he wrote, ‘it would not only make this rural dwelling unique within the north Pale region, but would place it within a site-type that is vastly under represented in the Irish countryside and under-appreciated in Irish academia.’
Carstown was maintained and occupied until relatively recently but over the past two decades the house has fallen into serious disrepair, despite being listed for protection and the subject of four separate national monument records. Members of County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society have long been campaigning to ensure the building’s future: it has been the subject of repeated attacks by vandals and the greater part of the lead had been stripped from the roof, leaving the interiors vulnerable to the elements. Finally the society’s efforts ensured emergency repairs were carried out in 2016 by Louth County Council. Further critical work to the building by the council, as well as a structural survey part-funded by the Irish Georgian Society, was due to have begun next Monday. However last Sunday the house was set on fire and has effectively been left a shell.
Is this news disappointing? Yes. Is it surprising? No. Carstown Manor, like a great many historic properties across the country, has been allowed to slide into ruin because those in positions of authority have failed to act with sufficient force and speed. Unless enforced, legislation designed to protect our heritage is worthless: owners can simply neglect their legal responsibilities without fear of being brought to justice. So it has proven in this case, and a great many others: Carstown is just the latest in a long and melancholy list of lost buildings. What happened here was unnecessary and avoidable. The national patrimony continues to diminish and we are all left the poorer. County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society intends to hold a meeting as intended next week when they can see how best to preserve what is left at Carstown, not least those two plaques. Their voluntary work is to be applauded. What a shame it is not better emulated by those in a position to do more for our heritage, both in County Louth and throughout the rest of the state.