A Remarkable Survivor

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From Hugh Allingham’s Ballyshannon: Its History and Antiquities (1879): ‘At the close of 1739 this country was visited with a frost of extraordinary length and severity.It extended into the year 1740, lasting in all 108 days. A period of great scarcity and distress followed, and it was at that time that General Folliott, the owner of Wardtown, decided to build Wardtown Castle, thereby giving employment to the distressed classes of the neighbourhood. The remuneration they received during the progress of the work was sixpence per day and their food. Considering the value of money in those days, this was a liberal allowance and fully equivalent to 2s. per day at the present time. Before the erection of Wardtown Castle, the Folliott family had a residence on their property there.’

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The first of the Folliotts to come to Ireland was Henry, born in Worcestershire in 1569 who, like many younger sons chose to seek his fortune by joining the army: by 1594 he is listed as serving in County Donegal. In the early 17th century he began to accumulate land in the area and two years before his death in 1622 he was created first Baron Folliott of Ballyshannon. He was succeeded by his nine-year old eldest son Thomas who, on his death, was succeeded by Henry, third and last Baron Folliott. When he died without a direct male heir in 1716, while the unentailed estates were divided between his five sisters, the entailed properties passed to a cousin, the man mentioned by Hugh Allingham, Lieutenant-General John Folliott. He in turn died without male heir and so his estate passed to another cousin, also John Folliott, whose family property was in neighbouring County Sligo. It is for this reason that from the later decades of the 18th century the Folliotts were no longer resident in Donegal.

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The early 17th century Plantation of Ulster saw land in that part of the country divided between a number of different parties, including soldiers like the first Henry Folliott and other adventurers, the Established Church and Trinity College, Dublin. The last of these owned the parcel of some 700 acres on which Wardtown Castle stands but in 1616 leased it to the Folliotts who already held a lot of land in the vicinity. When the lease was renewed in 1733 it came with the stipulation that the lessee had to build ‘within ten years, a house of lime and stone forty foot by eighteen foot and one and a half storeys high.’ As can be seen, the house as constructed by General Folliott is very much larger than demanded. Wardtown Castle is of three storeys over raised basement, with three half-round towers on the front and one in the centre of the rear. On the ground floor, the central entrance hall accordingly has apsed ends and is flanked by two large rooms each measuring twenty-one feet square with windows on either side. Off these, to the front are perfectly round rooms both thirteen feet in diameter: on the domed ceilings of these survives delicate plasterwork (likewise some of the more robust plaster panelling in the former drawing room also remains). Behind the round rooms and similarly accessed from the reception areas are identically proportioned square stair halls on the walls of which can still be seen evidence of their former purpose. The design of Wardtown is rigorously governed by symmetry.

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The question is: who was responsible for designing Wardtown? Writing in 1979, Alistair Rowan noted that the building is ‘similar to the small conceits by Vanbrugh but on a larger scale.’ Furthermore its exterior bears a striking resemblance to the likewise now-ruined Arch Hall, County Meath (for more of which, including many pictures, see The Untriumphal Arch, December 15th 2014). Although some alterations to the latter were undertaken in the 19th century (and the fenestration is somewhat different), it too is of three storeys over basement, is one room deep, has three half-round towers to the front,and circular rooms to the front at each end. If not twins, the houses are first-cousins and, speaking of kinship, owing to their Vanbrughian qualities, both buildings have been attributed to his relation, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Certainly the late Maurice Craig thought Pearce responsible for the pair. However, there is a problem with this attribution since Pearce died in 1733, the year in which Folliott signed his new lease with Trinity College, Dublin and at least six years before he initiated building work on the site. Might he have seen Arch Hall at some earlier date and simply ‘borrowed’ the design? Might there have been some, as yet unknown, connection with the Payne (or Paine) family then living at Arch Hall? We may never know but the links are too apparent to be overlooked.

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As mentioned, during the 18th century the Folliott’s Donegal estates passed to diverse cousins so while they continued to be the leaseholders of this land from Trinity College, Dublin they did not live there. In Pigott’s Directory of 1824 a Dr Simon Sheil is listed as resident in Wardtown and just over a decade later the Likely family sublet the house from the Folliotts. They seem to have been the last occupants of the building, leaving it around a century ago. Thereafter it seems not to have been used and so fell into the present state of ruin. Even in this condition, it is a striking sight, on a slightly raised piece of land in western Donegal, overlooking the Erne estuary and with nothing remotely like it in the vicinity: it is scarcely possible to conceive the impact such a building must have made when first constructed. The scene remains memorable, a site to the immediate front being occupied by that embodiment of 20th century Irish architectural ambition, the bungalow, while the immediate rear is filled with material relating to the ‘adventure farm’ run here. Between the two stands Wardtown, a remarkable survivor from another age.

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Into the Woods

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Buried in the midst of trees, the remains of a neo-classical gate lodge in County Fermanagh. Likely dating from the early 19th century, its entrance at the top of a short flight of steps features a fine Tuscan portico flanked by windows each set within a shallow arched niche. Although almost beyond redemption (the rear wall has bulged out and looks on the verge of collapse), the building’s quality of stonework for key features, together with an evident consideration of the overall design, is testament to the care once paid even to such modest dwellings.

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Unclear Past, Unclear Future

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The remains of the Augustinian Priory in Ballinrobe, County Mayo. This was the first religious house established by the order in Connaught but there remains some uncertainty over who was responsible for its foundation: it has been suggested that the priory owed its origins to Elizabeth de Clare (a granddaughter of Edward I) who in 1308 married John de Burgh and four years later had a son William, in celebration of which Ballinrobe Priory was established. On the other hand, another proposal is that the priory was set up in 1337 by Roger Taaffe, perhaps on behalf of the de Burghs. Whatever the facts, the house thrived, despite a bad fire early in the 15th century and even survived suppression in the 1540s, with members of the order still in residence 100 years later. Thereafter it fell into ruin. Restoration work was carried out on the site some twenty-five years ago but, despite being surrounded by a graveyard (and by an increasing number of new houses) the priory looks to be falling into serious neglect again: a future as unclear as its past?

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Pourquoi me reveiller

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Ah! Bien souvent mon rêve s’envole
Sur l’aile de ces vers,
Et c’est toi, cher poète
Qui, bien plutôt, était mon interprète.
Toute mon âme est là!

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Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Pourquoi me réveiller?
Sur mon front, je sens tes caresses
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps
Des orages et des tristesses.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?

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Demain dans le vallon viendra le voyageur,
Se souvenant de ma gloire première.
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendor,
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère.
Hélas!
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?

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Piltown, County Meath: Built by Thomas Brodigan 1838, burnt by arsonists 2006.

Stable or Unstable?

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To the immediate north-west of the castle at Charleville Forest, County Offaly stands an equally substantial block that once served as stables for the property. Like the main house, this was designed by Francis Johnston in 1798 for Charles Bury, Lord Tullamore (later created Earl of Charleville) and is in the same solid Gothic style. Unfortunately whereas the greater part of the castle is still in use, the same is not true of the stable block which as a consequence is now in a poor state of repair.

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Selective Memory

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The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has often been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, but the words’ innate fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that no one can say for certain who actually first used them. History is written as often by losers, and by those who played no role in any supposed conflict. And in the present age of alternative truths, history is even more vulnerable to prejudice and selective memory. Irish history is as replete as any other with forgotten or overlooked narratives, usually laid aside because they do not fit into the preferred version. It is easier to propose a clear linear story than one in which there are sundry twists and diversions diverting attention away from the central tale. So it is that visitors to the Castlecomer Discovery Park in County Kilkenny, while they are given the opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in this region, will hear no mention of a remarkable woman who a century ago lived here as the mine manager’s wife. Despite her subsequent achievements and global fame, she does not fit comfortably into the story being told and has therefore been omitted (to the extent that staff in the Discovery Park are even unfamiliar with her name). That woman was Constance Spry.

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In 2004 vacuum-cleaner inventor James Dyson resigned as chairman of London’s Design Museum when the institution’s then-director Alice Rawsthorne proposed organising an exhibition dedicated to Constance Spry, whose career was dismissed by one of the museum’s founders, Terence Conran, as nothing more than “high-society mimsiness”. These glib verdicts say more about the male prejudices of Dyson and Conran than they do about Spry and her considerable achievements, which were twofold. In the first place she revolutionised flower arranging which, while undoubtedly a minor art, is nevertheless one that impinges on all our lives, often for the better. Spry spurned the stiff and excessively formal style of floral decoration that predominated in her youth and replaced it with a looser approach, recognising every plant, whether cultivated or wild, had potential; typically for a London wedding in 1938 she filled the church with vases holding nothing but cow parsley. (Incidentally, in the wake of Conran’s criticism it was pointed out by the Guardian’s James Fenton that the decorative tricks found in every Conran store – a bundle of twigs in a glass vase, say, or an amusing confection of ornamental cabbages – were all first found in Spry’s work.) Furthermore, as an ardent gardener she helped to save many rare plants, especially varieties of old roses, from potential extinction: tellingly when rose specialist David Austin created his first variety in 1961 he named it ‘Constance Spry.’
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives and run their own businesses. In this respect she already had the example of her father, a remarkable man called George Fletcher, who left school at the age of 14 with minimal qualifications and no social advantages but, thanks to his appreciation of the benefits of education, finished by being head of technical instruction in early 20th-century Ireland (but like his offspring has now been almost entirely forgotten). His only daughter Constance likewise became involved in education, employed by the government in the early 1900s to travel throughout this country lecturing on the advantages of sound healthcare. It was in this capacity that she came to Castlecomer, staying for two weeks to improve the condition of the local miners. And while in the town, she also first met and soon after married the mine manager James Heppell Marr.

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Constance Spry lived in the Castlecomer region for six years and gave birth here to her only child before the marriage to Marr broke down and she moved away. A woman who 100 years ago had the courage to leave her husband and search for employment to support an infant son: there was nothing mimsy in Spry’s background or character. She started to arrange flowers professionally in response to demand for her services, and her achievement in this field was entirely unplanned, a coincidence of circumstances to which she responded with avidity. Here is where her significance lies: as one of a number of pioneering women who in the early part of the last century demonstrated it was feasible for members of their sex to develop and run successful businesses. During the same period, for example, Syrie Maugham established an interior-design company of international renown, while soon afterwards Rosemary Hume founded the original Cordon Bleu school of cookery; both women became friends and associates of Spry. The characteristic she shared with them was an ability to spot the potential in a supposedly mundane skill and transform it into a viable commercial concern. Spry, Maugham, Hume et al had no professional predecessors from whom to learn, the expectation being that, like their mothers before them, they would marry and raise children. But perforce breaking free from the constraints of their upbringing, they had the ability to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.
Today’s photographs show what remains of a lodge beside gates opposite Castlecomer Discovery Park. These gates mark the entrance to the now-lost Castlecomer Park, permitted to fall into ruin before being demolished in 1975. It was here that Constance Spry first stayed when she came to the town, the house’s residents being also owners of the local coal mine for some three centuries. The lodge and gates were designed by Dublin architect George Francis Beckett in 1912-13, during the period when Constance Spry was here. More recently the building has been gutted by fire and there is every likelihood it will soon be as little remembered as the exceptional woman who came to the area in 1910 in order to improve the health of the local coal miners.

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A Thundering Disgrace No More?

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Three years ago this site drew attention to the scandalous condition of Aldborough House in Dublin (see A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014). The last great aristocratic townhouse to be built in the capital (and, other than Leinster House, the largest) the building’s name comes from the man responsible for its construction Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough. Although the earl already possessed a fine residence next to Belvedere House on Great Denmark Street, he was determined to construct a new one that would testify to his wealth and social position, in addition to serving as centre-piece to a westerly extension of the city beyond that already achieved by the Gardiners. Portland Row is a continuation of the North Circular Road, running from the Phoenix Park to the docks, and it made sense to anticipate further development in this part of Dublin. Unfortunately Lord Aldborough failed to take into account the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union (for which he voted) which led to a steep decline in the city’s fortunes and left his great town house marooned.

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Five years in construction, and costing over £40,000, Aldborough House was only enjoyed by its owner for a short period since he died in January 1801. The property passed to his widow who subsequently remarried but was likewise dead a mere eighteen months later. Then came a decade of litigation before Lord Aldborough’s nephew Colonel John Wingfield was confirmed in possession of the house; he promptly sold its entire contents. The building was then let to ‘Professor’ Gregor von Feinaigle, a former Cistercian monk and mnemonist, who opened a school there. (Incidentally, it is proposed that the word ‘finagle’ derives from the professor’s name and reflects his dodgy pedagogical methods). Six years later von Feinaigle died and by 1843 the house had become an army barracks. In 1850 the garden statuary was all sold and in the 1940s the garden itself was lost, used by Dublin Corporation for social housing so that today Aldborough House has effectively no grounds. As for the house itself, coming into public ownership it served as a depot for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs during the last century. During this time and especially in later decades the property was compromised by various ill-considered alterations such as the vertical divisions of rooms to create office space and the effective gutting of the former theatre. At the end of the 19th century all the chimneypieces, supposedly by Pietro Bossi, were removed and placed somewhere safe, never to be seen again. Nevertheless, the house remained in use and in reasonable condition. In 1999 the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised as Eircom and that organisation offered Aldborough House for sale. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) considered it for a new headquarters but then opted not to go ahead with the scheme and in 2005 the building was sold for €4.5 million to a company called Aldborough Developments and over the next nine years it fell further and further into disrepair.

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Today’s photographs were taken during a recent opportunity to inspect the interior of Aldborough House, and they testify to the building’s poor condition. The vast central staircase, of cantilevered Portland stone with wrought-iron balusters, is now supported by a number of metal poles rising the height of the building: the glazed dome at the top has been covered over, so no natural light reaches here. Many of the other areas are likewise boarded up, and can only be seen with the aid of a torch. The main rooms on ground and first floors are today principally striking for their scale, immense bare spaces stripped of whatever decoration they had once been given (although in the ballroom scagliola pilasters with Corinthian capitals survive beneath layers of paint). Long windows running almost the full height of the walls provide ample views of what was once largely open countryside but is now urban sprawl. Some of the overdoors, on which classical figures recline and putti frolic indifferent to the decay around them, remain but others have been pulled out. The chimneypieces, as already mentioned, are long gone, even in rooms on the attic storey. Tantalising hints of former splendour appear here and there, but in the main the impression is of long-term neglect with inevitable consequences for the building. Aldborough House changed hands once more in autumn 2014 and initially little seemed to be happening to improve the site. More recently however, clearance and stabilisation work has taken place, as well as the advent of decent security to ensure the place is no longer vulnerable to vandalism. There are proposals now being developed to give Aldborough House a viable future and if these are allowed to proceed the property would be restored and brought back to use. For too long it has sat empty and untended: anyone who cares for our architectural heritage must hope that this situation will soon change and Aldborough House no longer be a thundering disgrace.

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