The Consequence of Extravagance


Ireland’s recent economic recession which caused such hardship and left such devastation in its wake has frequently been blamed on a national inclination to overspend during the good times with insufficient preparation for when these might come to a close. This is by no means a new phenomenon: the country is covered with large houses built over preceding centuries by owners whose architectural aspirations proved larger than their budgets – with inevitably unfortunate consequences. Charleville Forest, County Offaly is one such building: a vast neo-Gothic castle constructed at such expense that it left subsequent generations burdened with debt and, in the case of the last descendant of the original family, with a deep loathing for the place.
It had all begun so promisingly when, in August 1764 Charles William Bury, then just two months old, inherited not just the substantial estates of his deceased father but also those of his great-uncle Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville who had died earlier the same year. The infant Bury was exceedingly rich, his family owning large amounts of land in County Limerick where they had settled in 1666 (their early 18th century house, Shannon Grove, still survives). In addition, thanks to his grandmother being the only sister and heiress of the Earl of Charleville, he came to own large amounts of land around Tullamore, County Offaly where the Moores had first built a house in the 1640s. When he graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1785 he turned 21 and came into a fortune enjoyed by few other young men. Over the next half-century he proceeded to spend his way through it.




It was formerly a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a peerage. Charles Bury, having sat in the Irish House of Commons as an M.P. for Kilmallock, County Limerick was duly created Baron Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and finally Earl of Charleville (reviving his great-uncle’s title) in 1806. He has been described as ‘an amiable dilettante, with antiquarian interests’ the latter leading to his being elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1812. But the same interests were responsible for his decision to build a new residence for himself on his County Offaly estate. As mentioned, a house had existed here since the 1640s, originally known as Redwood and only given the name Charleville Forest (from the ancient oaks all around it) in the 18th century. One might have thought such a building sufficiently antiquarian, but by 1800 Lord Charleville had decided something more ancient-looking was required. Hence he embarked on the construction of an entirely new castle. In concept, if not in detail, he could claim credit for the result: a letter written in November 1800 from Lady Louisa Conolly to Lady Charleville mentions the intended castle and credits the latter’s husband with ‘having planned it all himself.’ Some drawings survive and these, as Sean O’Reilly wrote some years ago, ‘show the crude hand of an amateur, but equally betray a total freedom of imagination unshackled by the discipline of architectural training.’ Lord Charleville was keen that the building should be in the newly fashionable Gothic style but at the same time enjoy all the necessary ‘convenience and modern refinements in luxury.’




While Lord Charleville may have had a hand in outlining the form his new home would take, the details and execution of the project were handed over to architect Francis Johnston, at the time primarily known for his work in the neo-classical idiom. Due to Johnston’s many other commitments, the work took longer than his client would have wished: in 1804 the architect had to agree with Lord Charleville that ‘things went on too slow at the castle’ and so they did as late as 1812 when the job was still not finished. However, enough had been done three years before for the Viceroy, the Duke of Richmond, together with his wife and entourage, to be entertained in the new Charleville Forest. Their host hoped that as a result of their visit he would be appointed to the financially lucrative position of Irish Postmaster General; unfortunately it went to another applicant.
By this time Johnston was also working on the Gothic Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/11/09/a-spirit-of-theatre) and although intended for very different purposes, the two buildings share many characteristics. The interiors of Charleville Forest are highly theatrical, beginning with the double-height hall with vaulted ceiling, encountered as soon as one steps into the building, a grand staircase leading up to the reception rooms on the piano nobile. A door at the top of the stairs leads into the most fantastical of the rooms, the Gallery which overlooks the garden and has a remarkable Perpendicular Gothic ceiling executed in plaster. Lozenges on the ceiling contain various heraldic devices to illustrate the distinguished pedigree of the Bury family, and these appear also on the ceilings of the other main rooms. Note the Moor’s head: this was one of the symbols used by the Moore family. But it is worth pointing out that, stripped of its surface dressing, the interior of Charleville Forest is essentially classical, with an ordered symmetry maintained throughout the building; this is Strawberry Hill Gothick rather than the pure Gothic promoted a few decades later by Pugin et al.




Lord Charleville’s extravagance was not confined to building a castle in County Offaly. He and his wife kept an establishment in London where they entertained lavishly, they travelled frequently and expensively to continental Europe, and supported their son and his wife in a separate property. As a result, on Lord Charleville’s death in 1835, ‘he left a heavily embarrassed estate.’ His heir (described by Thomas Creevey as being ‘justly entitled to the prize as by far the greatest bore the world can produce’) did not share that embarrassment until forced to do so in 1844 when, as a result of his indebtedness he was obliged to sell his Limerick properties, close up Charleville Forest and move to Berlin. On his death in 1851, the now-diminished estate was inherited by his son the third earl; ultimately ownership of Charleville Forest passed to his youngest daughter, Lady Emily Bury whose husband, the Hon Kenneth Howard changed his surname to Howard-Bury. Their son, Lt-Col. Charles Howard-Bury (whose own extraordinary story must be told on another occasion) was the last of the family to live in the castle, but so detested the place that he would not live there: it remained empty following his mother’s death in 1931 and the contents were sold in a spectacular auction in 1949. Since then the place has had what can best be described as a chequered history, sometimes neglected, sometimes undergoing periods of restoration. Having first visited the house almost forty years ago, the Irish Aesthete has witnessed it in a variety of incarnations. In recent years it has come under the care of a charitable organization, the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust which encourages volunteers from Ireland and overseas to help ensure the building’s preservation. It is also used for a variety of events from weddings to film and television filming. Somehow, although large portions are still in need of much attention, happily the building has survived.

A European Record


‘There are probably more derelict buildings in Ireland than in any other country of Western Europe,’ opens a television report on the rescue of Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary (see: https://www.rte.ie/archives/2017/1122/922043-damer-house-gets-new-life). That statement was made in 1977 and is probably just as applicable today, as can be seen by the condition of this house, in the townland or Irby on the outskirts of Roscrea.



The building looks to be early-to-mid 19th century and constructed as a residence for an affluent tenant farmer. It was designed like a miniature gentleman’s house, with a number of reception rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms upstairs, all inside sturdy walls. These still survive but the interior has been almost entirely lost and the roof is on the verge of going. Although capable of restoration and reuse, the place will likely only decline further: after all, Ireland has a reputation to maintain as the country with more derelict buildings than anywhere else in Europe…

Neighbours II




Coote Terrace is a row of three late Georgian three-bay, two-storey over basement villas in Mountrath, County Laois, the name derived from the Coote family who lived nearby in Ballyfin. They are in diverse condition, this one being well-maintained and with a handsome front garden. Its neighbour, on the other hand, looks in need of serious attention if the house is to survive.



Neighbours I



Moore Hall can be found on O’Moore Street, Tullamore, County Offaly. The house dates from the mid-1750s when built by Richard Moore, who may have been related to Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville (of the first creation). It was probably quite simple but just over a century later a doctor called John Ridley added the central limestone bay with its extraordinary first floor window in Jacobean Mannerist style that sits atop a more regular doorcase flanked by Doric columns and finished with a wide fanlight.  Aside from the unfortunate uPVC windows, the building survives in good condition, unlike its immediate neighbour, a pretty early 19th century cottage with Wyatt windows on either side of a tall and wide gothic doorcase: sadly this house is fast falling into dereliction.


The Final Witness


The former Market House in Eyrecourt, County Galway. The building dates from c.1750 and is one of a number erected in the 18th century by local landlords the Eyre family to improve the circumstances of the locality. The linen industry, one of the few businesses free from import duties on goods sent to England, thrived during this period and both Eyrecourt and nearby Lawrencetown became active centres for the fabric’s manufacture, hence the need for a market house.



Designed on a T-plan and of five-bays and two-storeys, the building subsequently appears to have served a number of other purposes, including court house, school, town hall and theatre. However, at some date in the last century it was damaged by fire and has stood a roofless ruin ever since, last witness to what was once a thriving industry in the area.


More on Eyrecourt in due course…

Awaiting Developments


Wilton House on College Square North, Belfast. Dating from the early 1830s, the neo-classical building was originally constructed as two houses and is believed to have been designed by Thomas Jackson, a young Waterford-born architect who had recently gone into partnership with the older Thomas Duff of Newry. Towards the end of the 19th century, the pair of houses were combined into one so as to operate as the Hotel Metropole. In 1907 it began to be used as a mission hall for the Adult Deaf and Dumb Organisation which through various incarnations remained on the site until 2011. Since then it has sat empty and falling into dereliction, although at least the property still stands, unlike many others in the immediate vicinity which were lost to bombing and subsequent demolition during the 1970s. Wilton House was finally sold last year to developers who have lodged a planning application to convert the house into eight apartments, with a seven-storey extension to the rear containing a further 19 apartments.

A Poor Example


The slowly decaying carcase of the former St Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway. Opened in 1833, it was originally called the Connacht District Lunatic Asylum, one of more than twenty built across Ireland during the middle decades of the 19th century. Many of them, including this one, were designed by Dublin architect William Murray who drew on the plans and ideas of his cousin, Francis Johnston: he had been responsible for the first such public institution in Ireland, the Richmond Lunatic Asylum (now part of the Dublin Institute of Technology campus) built 1810-14. St Brigid’s design was inspired by ideas developed at the end of the 18th century by philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham about how best to manage inmates in large institutions. He conceived of a building which he called a Panopticon (from the Greek panotes, meaning ‘all seeing’) which was originally circular, those in charge occupying the central section and thus able to observe what was happening around them. The Ballinasloe hospital is a variation on this theme. Here, as was also the case in the slightly earlier Limerick Lunatic Asylum likewise designed by Murray, wings radiate on four sides from a central block which provided accommodation for the governor and other members of staff: access to the wings and their extensions was only possible via the central block, the importance of which is emphasised by the clock tower topped by copper ogee dome. St Brigid’s is vast. At the turn of the last century, for example, it had more than 1,150 inmates and after that date further buildings were constructed on the site. After closing down in 2013, today most of it stands empty and decaying, like so many other historic properties that are the responsibility of the Health Service Executive. The longer the building stands empty and neglected, the more likely it will fall into further decay – or worse be subject to the kind of vandalism from which other similar former institutions have suffered. The state owns St Brigid’s: its present condition sets a poor example of care for what is supposed to be a ‘protected structure’.


Rampant Grandiosity



The grandiously-named Woburn, which stands on the coast in north County Down. Designed by Dublin architect John McCurdy, the house was built in 1866-67 around an earlier seaside villa. This had been owned by wealthy mill owner John Gilmore Dunbar but was spectacularly enlarged into an Italianate mansion by his nephew and heir, George Orr Dunbar: the property subsequently passed to the Pack-Beresford family. Death duties obliged Woburn’s sale in the 1950s, after which it was bought by the Northern Ireland Ministry of Finance and converted into a borstal. More recently it became a training centre for prison officers but following the closure of this facility, the 43-acre site – on which many ancillary buildings had been constructed – stood empty until sold last year. The house’s future is unclear.


Needing Attention



This 19th century domed greenhouse closes a vista inside the walled garden of Malahide Castle, County Dublin. The building is not original to the site: seemingly it came from a convent in south County Dublin and was installed here in recent years by Malahide Castle’s owners, Fingall County Council. It is a handsome addition to the walled garden, but the state of some of the roof timbers suggests insufficient maintenance.