A High House on High Ground


‘It is a high house, standing on high ground; without a tree, bush or offices in sight, nothing can be more uncompromising than it looks from this road. We soon after approach two bridges over different rivers, which rise after a subterranean course…the old gentleman [Christopher French St George] built the house and an excellent one it is – finished it in the best manner – with painted ceilings to all the lower rooms, and to the hall, which is large and handsome – he furnished it in the best style of those days – of about twenty years back, lived in it and enjoyed it, and 9 or 10 years ago resigned it to his son, who soon after married Lady Harriet St. Lawrence, and they have lived happily and have seldom left it, never for any length of time – they have six little girls – and they appear very happy – Mr St. George an excellent country gentleman, improving his estate, fond of hunting, shooting and all country sports…’
From the Journal of Mary Beaufort, September 1808





‘In the afternoon Tilly Redington and I drove over to Tyrone House. A bigger and much grander edition of Ross – a great square cut-stone house of three stories, with an area – perfectly empty – and such ceilings, architraves, teak doors and chimney-pieces as one sees in old houses in Dublin. It is on a long promontory by the sea and there rioted three or four generations of St. Georges – living with country-women, occasionally marrying them, all illegitimate four times over. No so long ago eight of these awful half-peasant families roosted together in that lovely house, and fought, and barricaded and drank, till the police had to intervene – about 150 years ago a very grand Lady Harriet St Lawrence married a St. George, and lived there, and was so corroded with pride that she would not allow her daughters to associate with the Galway people. She lived to see them marry two men in the yard. Yesterday as we left an old Miss St. George, daughter of the last owner, was at the door in a donkey trap-she lives near, in a bit of the castle, and since her people died she will not go into Tyrone House, or into the enormous yard, or the beautiful old garden. She was a strange mixture of distinction and commonness, like her breeding, and it was very sad to see her at the door of that great house – If we dare to write up that subject!’
From a letter written by Violet Martin to Edith Oliver, March 18th 1912





‘A correspondent has sent some interesting but sad details of the malicious burning of Tyrone House…It was in the late Georgian style and the finest house in Ireland. The ceilings were all painted by Italian masters and were regular works of art. The mantle pieces were all of rare Italian marble and very costly. In the hall was a fine full sized marble statue of Baron St George the founder of that once great family. It was the work of an Italian artist. The head was broken off the night of the raid deliberately it must be said. All the ceilings are now ruined and the mantle pieces also, and the entire structure an empty shell and ruin. There was no grounds for the report that the military or police intended or were to occupy the house, and agrarian motives are believed to have inspired and instigated this most foul and reprehensible act of purely wanton destruction. Of late years the place was freely allowed to be used by pleasure parties who came out from Loughrea and other places to have a dance which cost them nothing and to enjoy themselves, and who were never prevented from having their pleasure and a dance on the spacious floor of the dining room, and they can now no longer do so, and where in olden days the finest balls in the Co. Galway took place.’
From the Tuam Herald, September 4th 1920.


I shall be speaking of Tyrone House, County Galway and the St George family next Friday, September 22nd at 12 midday during the 2017 Irish Antique Dealers Association Fair in the RDS, Dublin. For more information, please see: http://www.iada.ie/antique-fairs

A Forgotten Philanthropist


The extraordinary Shrigley Monument, County Down. This stands close to the site of what was once a vast mill and village developed by entrepreneur John Martin. In 1870 the local people decided to acknowledge Martin’s contribution to the area’s prosperity by erecting a monument in his honour. Following a public competition, the prize for its design was won by the young Belfast-born architect Timothy Hevey. Erected in 1871, the monument has a square base, originally with a drinking fountain at the centre and with a lamp on each corner. An octagonal arcade climbs up to a square tower supported by flying buttresses which used to feature a clock. The latter has long since gone, along with greater part of the formerly adjacent factory and the Victorian village. And the monument is in parlous condition, testament to truth of the Irish adage Eaten Bread is Soon Forgotten.

A Victim of Arson



The remains of Balfour Castle, County Fermanagh. In 1618/19 the surveyor Captain Nicholas Pynnar noted that the Scottish settler James Balfour, first Lord Glenawley had ‘laid the foundation of a bawne of lime and stone 70 ft square, of which the two sides are raised 15 ft high. There is also a castle of the same length, of which the one half is built two stories high and is to be three stories and a half high.’ Because of Balfour’s origins, the castle was built very much in the Scottish style of a fortified house, necessary because it was damaged during both the Confederacy Wars of the 1640s and the Williamite wars later in the same century. However, it remained occupied until 1803 until destroyed by arson, the person responsible believed to have been a member of the Maguire clan which had once owned all the land in this part of the country. Balfour Castle has remained a ruin ever since and now looks over a graveyard on one side and a housing estate on the other.


Saintly Connections


The last Roman Catholic to be executed in England for his faith (although officially it was for high treason), Oliver Plunkett was also the first Irishman to be canonised for some seven centuries when declared a saint in 1975. Born 350 years earlier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Plunkett was member of a family which traced its origins back to Sir Hugh de Plunkett, a Norman knight who had come to Ireland during the reign of Henry II. His descendants established themselves primarily in Meath and Louth and soon acquired large land holdings in both. During the Reformation period, the Plunketts remained loyal to the Catholic religion of their forebears. Oliver Plunkett’s education was accordingly assigned to a cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin (and brother of the first Earl of Fingall). He then travelled to Rome where he entered the Irish College and became a priest, remaining in Italy until 1669 when appointed Archbishop of Armagh: the following year he returned to this country where he established a Jesuit College in Drogheda. However, changes in legislation and government attitudes towards Catholicism following the so-called Popish Plot of 1678 obliged him to go into hiding. Finally arrested in Dublin in December 1679 he was initially tried in Ireland but when the authorities here realised it would be impossible to secure a conviction he was taken to London where found guilty of high treason ‘for promoting the Roman faith’ and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in July 1681: since 1921 his head has been displayed in a reliquary in St Peter’s, Drogheda.





One of the houses associated with Oliver Plunkett is Louth Hall, County Louth. It was here he came to stay on his return to Ireland in 1670, provided with lodgings by his namesake and kinsman Oliver Plunkett, sixth Baron Louth. The original building on the site was a late-mediaeval tower house set on a hill above the river Glyde. This branch of the family had been based at Beaulieu, immediately north of Drogheda but in the early 16th century another Oliver Plunkett moved to the site of Louth Hall and in 1541 was created the first Lord Louth by Henry VIII. He may have improved the property to befit his status but given the travails that befell his successors as they remained Catholic during the upheavals of the next 150 years it is unlikely much more work was done to the building: on a couple of occasions their lands were seized from them or they were outlawed. The ninth Lord Louth, a minor when he succeeded to the estate in 1707, was raised in England in the Anglican faith and so his successors remained until the second half of the 19th century when the 13th Baron Louth was received into the Catholic church. Meanwhile considerable changes were wrought to their house, to which c.1760 a long three-storey, one-room deep extension was added. Further alterations were made in 1805 when Richard Johnston, elder brother of the more famous Francis, created several large spaces including a ballroom with bow window to the rear of the building. He was also responsible for inserting arched gothic windows to the original tower house and providing a crenellated parapet to conceal the pitched roof behind.





The Plunketts remained at Louth Hall until almost the middle of the last century. Most of the surrounding estate, which in the 1870s ran to more than 3,500 acres, was sold following the 1903 Wyndham Land Act but the house stayed in the family’s ownership and was occupied by the 14th Lord Louth who died in 1941. Louth Hall was then disposed of and seems to have stood empty thereafter. When Mark Bence-Jones wrote of the house in 1978 (Burke’s Guide to Country Houses: Ireland), he included a photograph of the dining room being used to store sacks of grain. Fifteen years later Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan (Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster) wrote of ‘delicate rococo plasterwork’ in two niches of the same room, and of crisp neo-classical plasterwork in the stairwell, as well as the first-floor drawing room featuring ‘delicate plasterwork of oak garlands and acorns.’ Almost none of this remains today, as vandals set fire to the already-damaged house in 2000 and left it an almost complete ruin. Somehow traces of the original interior decoration remain here and there, tantalising hints of how it must once have looked, but even the Plunkett coat of arms that until recently rested above the pedimented entrance doorcase has either been stolen or destroyed. As so often in this country, the only remaining occupants are cattle. Oliver Plunkett is a much–venerated saint in Ireland but not even his documented links with Louth Hall has been sufficient to protect it from a sad end.

Encouraging Conservation and Preservation


Today sees the start of this year’s National Heritage Week, the aim of which according to the Heritage Council (which coordinates the event) ‘is to build awareness and education about our heritage thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation.’ This is a laudable aspiration and merits everyone’s support. Heritage Week has encouraged some valuable initiatives. As of today, for example, St Lawrence’s Gate, a thirteenth century barbican originally built as part of the defences of Drogheda, County Louth (seen above) is to be permanently closed to vehicular traffic – something which should have happened many years ago – thereby ensuring its better protection. All counties in Ireland participate with enthusiasm in Heritage Week but once the seven days are over, many of our historic buildings revert to a condition of vulnerability. Below is a photograph of the former Church of Ireland church at Castlehyde, County Cork. Originally constructed in 1809 it further benefitted from the attention of George Pain in 1830. Having been closed for services, it has sat empty for some time and is now in imminent danger of collapse. This building is as much part of our heritage as St Lawrence’s Gate, and although likewise listed for protection has been allowed to slip into its present state. It would be beneficial if the goodwill engendered by Heritage Week were put to advantage to ensure more historic properties were given the support required to ensure their long-term future. Obvious ways to do so would be to use this high-profile annual event to highlight specific buildings at risk, and to campaign that local authorities enforce the law regarding protection of listed structures, something that with rare exceptions they currently fail to do so. As the state of the church in Castlehyde shows, until our legislation is matched by implementation every week needs to be Heritage Week.

Falling Apart


The main entrance gates to Carrigglas Manor, County Longford. These were designed c.1795 for the estate’s then-owner Sir William Newcomen whose family owned one of Ireland’s most successful private banks. The gateway was part of a large scheme for Carriglas commissioned from James Gandon, of which only this and the interlinked stable and farmyards were actually built. Sir William’s son, Sir Thomas Gleadowe-Newcomen lacked his father’s acumen and when the bank collapsed in 1825 he shot himself. Carrigglas then passed into the ownership of a clever lawyer, Thomas Lefroy, today best-remembered as the possible object of Jane Austen’s amorous intentions. His descendants remained at Carrigglas until 2005 when the estate was sold to a property company called Thomas Kearns Developments which proceded to wreak havoc on the place, cutting down large swathes of ancient woodland and throwing up cheap housing before – like Sir Thomas Gleadowe-Newcomen – going bust. Three years ago Carrigglas was bought by a local company, Glennon Brothers, but since then little seems to have happened other than that the existing buildings around the estate have deteriorated further. Such is the case with the entrance, a triumphal arch flanked by low walls that conclude in a pair of lodges: stylistically it has many similarities with the entrances to the Four Courts in Dublin, also designed by Gandon. Unfortunately neglect in recent years means the ashlar blocks are beginning to shift, thereby putting the entire ensemble at risk. The structure is, of course, listed for protection.

Portrait of the Artist’s Homestead


In Ireland few painters are better known or more admired than Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), examples of whose work today fetch some of the highest prices for a picture at auction. Yet Orpen’s background is relatively little studied, and his links with County Kerry are accordingly overlooked. Like many families, the Orpens were inclined to give themselves a more distinguished pedigree that was actually the case. So in Burke’s Landed Gentry of 1847 it is claimed that ‘The family of Orpen is of remote antiquity, and is stated to trace its descent from Erpen, second son of Varnacker (maire of the palace to Clothaire I), who was the son of Meroveus, and grandson of Theodorick, son of Clovis, King of France.’ This places their origins back in the sixth century, so that by the time William, Duke of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he was of course accompanied by a knight called Robert d’Erpen who thereafter settled at Erpingham in Norfolk. According to this version of events, the family turns up in Ireland in the second half of the 17th century already long established as members of the landed gentry on the other side of the Irish Sea. Such would have been the story of his forebears likely known by William Orpen. However the year before his death a cousin, the historian Goddard Henry Orpen produced an alternative, and somewhat less distinguished narrative. From this it would appear that the first Orpen to come to Ireland, a descendant of humble English yeomen, did so some time in the 1650s/60s when he acquired land around the area of Killorglin, County Kerry and that by the mid-1670s his son, Richard Orpen was employed as a land agent by the region’s greatest landowner, Sir William Petty. All of which is not quite so splendid as the lineage proposed by Burke but, as Goddard Henry Orpen wrote, ‘it is the truth I seek and not a (faked) illustrious ancestry and, after all, is it not better to rise than to fall?’





So, the earliest Orpens to settle in Kerry did so in the second half of the 17th century and prospered thanks to their association with the Pettys, later Petty-Fitzmaurices and ultimately Marquesses of Lansdowne. As a result they were able to acquire their own substantial landholdings, including the area around Ardtully in South Kerry. Until the 17th century this property was under the control of the MacFineens, a branch of the powerful MacCarthy clan but according to the Books of Survey and Distribution (compiled c.1650-80) during the course of the Confederate Wars, Colonel Donough MacFineen forfeited Ardtully, on which then stood ‘two good slate houses, a corn-mill, a castle, malthouse, barn, and tuck mill, likewise there are iron-mines and a silver mine in the quarter of Ardtully.’ The lands here were granted by the crown to one John Dillon but subsequently acquired on a long lease by the descendants of the original Richard Orpen: following a marriage between the latter’s grandson and Anna Townsend of Bridgemount, County Cork in 1766 the family’s name became Orpen Townsend. Ultimately in the first half of the 19th century the Ardtully estate was first leased and then purchased through the Encumbered Estates Court by a cousin of Richard Orpen Townsend: this was the successful solicitor Richard John Theodore Orpen. Founder of a legal practice still in existence today (as Orpen Franks) he would act as President of the Law Society from 1860 until his death sixteen years later. Knighted in 1866, he was the grandfather of the artist William Orpen and builder of a house still just extant at Ardtully.





Sir Richard John Theodore Orpen was clearly very proud of his family, if somewhat deluded about its pedigree, and assembled whatever information he could about his ancestors. He also built up a considerable land holding in County Kerry, amounting to over 12,000 acres by the time of his death. A fine residence in the centre of this property was required, and duly built at Ardtully in 1847. Its architect unknown, the house is customarily summarised as being in the Scottish Baronial style but this seems more a flag of convenience than an accurate description. In truth Ardtully looks to have been a typically Victorian grab-bag of architectural elements, its most prominent feature being a castellated round tower and turret on the south-east corner. Looking towards the river Roughty, the entrance front features a porch topped by the Orpen coat of arms (now damaged), another attempt by Sir Richard to demonstrate his lineage. Inside the house looks to have contained the usual collection of reception and bedrooms ranged over two storeys, the roofline marked by a succession of stepped gables and dormers. A substantial range of service outbuildings lay to the north. A handsome coloured illustration of Ardtully appeared in County Seats of The Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland (published 1870): conveniently the author of this six-volume work was Sir Richard’s nephew, the Rev. Francis Orpen Morris. The estate was eventually inherited by another Anglican clergyman, Sir Richard’s second son, the Rev. Raymond Orpen, Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe. Uncle of the painter Sir William Orpen, he retired from office in 1921 and the same year Ardtully was burnt by the IRA. It has remained a ruin ever since, the link with one of this country’s greatest artists forgotten.