Tucked away down a grassy boreen stands the now-abandoned church of St Helen, Moviddy, County Cork (closed for services 1961, unroofed 1968). The surrounding graveyard contains this early 18th century mausoleum (also now without a roof) constructed by the Bailey family who were then living close by in Castlemore Castle. Inside the little building, the south wall is dominated by a large memorial carrying the following inscription: ‘This monument erected at the cost of Mrs Anne Bayly widow of John Bayly of Castlemore Esquire to preserve his memory, who died the 15th of June Anno Christi, 1719. He was a gent who had the true interest of his country at heart. At the revolution he served in person in the wars of Ireland, till the kingdom was reduced to peace and quietness. Quitting the war he returned to his wife and children and shewed himself as good a husband as indulgent a father as he was a true subject being honored with a commission of the peace. He always administered justice so uprightly that he never blemished his commission and dyed lamented by all good men who did know him.’
Until the start of the 18th century, the village of Castlebellingham, County Louth was known as Gernonstown, named after the Gernon (otherwise Garland) family, the first of whom, the Anglo-Norman knight Roger de Gernon is thought to have arrived here in the 12th century with Strongbow. As evidence of their presence in this part of the country, there is also a Gernonstown to the northwest of Slane, County Meath. However, in Louth the Gernons were ousted by later arrivals, the Bellinghams. The first of that family to come to Ireland was Henry Bellingham who appeared here in the mid-17th century and in the great reallocation of Irish land which then took place, he was received or bought some of it based around Gernonstown; his possession of what would be the future Castlebellingham estate was confirmed by Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. When Henry Bellingham died in 1676, the estate was duly inherited by his son Thomas who in 1690 took the side of William III, becoming a colonel in his army and serving as a guide on the march south from Dundalk. In retaliation, the forces of James II burnt the colonel’s residence, probably an old Gernon tower house. A new house for the family was built around 1710 and it is about this time that the surrounding village acquired the new name of Castlebellingham. Today an hotel, the house was extensively remodelled and enlarged at the end of the 18th century and then given a fashionable Gothic makeover in the 1830s.
Located to the east immediately outside the gates of Bellingham Castle, as seen today the core of the village dates from the 19th century when it was carefully laid out in picturesque style by the Bellingham family. Among the most delightful features is a group of former almshouses built immediately adjacent to the Church of Ireland church to accommodate the widows of estate workers. A plaque above the main entrance to this building declares that it was endowed by Sir William Bellingham. Created a baronet in 1796, Sir William died thirty years later in 1826, and the almshouses, endowed with £64 per annum, were erected as a result of a legacy in his will. Sir William had no sons of his own, so the estate and baronetcy were inherited by a nephew, Alan Bellingham, but he died exactly ten months after his uncle, therefore it was Sir Alan’s son, the third baronet (another Alan) who undertook to honour Sir William’s intentions. The design of the building is often attributed to architect William Vitruvius Morrison, not least because it bears similarities to a couple of other ornamental cottages for which he was responsible: Carpenham, County Down and Lough Bray, County Wicklow. Here, as with both of the others, the building has steeply-gabled roofs and an amplitude of detail, such as the decorative bargeboards, ornamental finials, diamond-patterned pointed windows and tall brick chimneys. A further three detached two-storey cottages were subsequently built on the other side of the lane.
The Widows’ Almshouses were modest enough residences, with a single room on the ground floor and another two above. The interiors were altered since first built, but the essential structure remains unaltered, with just a tiny yard to the rear of each before meeting the church grounds. Five years ago, in April 2016, the entire block was offered for sale for the modest sum of €100,000, but with the proviso that the almshouses were in need of refurbishment. The property was duly sold and in September 2018 an application was made to, and granted by, the local authority for the four units to be upgraded and converted into two dwelling houses. Nothing appears to have happened since then and unfortunately the almshouses are in poor condition. One must hope that sooner rather than later something will be done to bring this important part of the area’s architectural heritage back to decent condition.
The remains of an RIC Barracks at Islandeady, County Mayo. The building dates from the first half of the 19th century when constructed on a plot provided for the purpose by local landlord Sir William Palmer who lived at Castle Lacken, today also a ruin. Of two storeys and three bays, the barracks is a handsome structure, with the focus on its cut-limestone doorcase. There is a small yard to the rear with holding cell. It remained in operation until early 1920 when, like many other remote buildings held by the force, it was abandoned owing to the War of Independence. In June of that year, the barracks was gutted by fire, again a common circumstance, and has remained a ruin ever since.
The Presbyterian church at Glasleck, County Cavan which, as a cut-stone plaque set into the wall advises, was built in 1836. Its first minister was the Reverend Randal McCollum who remained in this office until his death in 1874. Aside from attending to his flock, he also maintained a farm and wrote a number of works, not least Sketches of the Highlands of Cavan and of Shirley Castle, in Farney, Taken during the Irish Famine, which was published in 1856. A diary he kept for ten years, 1861-71 is now in the collection of Cavan County Council. Evidently there was once a thriving Presbyterian community in this part of the country, thereby justifying the building’s construction, but it gradually declined in the second half of the last century and closed in 1998, when the congregation was amalgamated with that of First Bailieborough.
A little classical gem: a lodge at the entrance to St Patrick’s College, Carlow. The English-born architect Thomas Alfred Cobden, who designed the main buildings on the site (and who for a couple of decades received an astonishing number of commissions in this part of the country), is thought to have been also responsible for the lodge which dates from around 1820. It has a beautifully austere facade, the pedimented portico supported by a pair of Doric columns, these features made of the local granite. The interior has an entrance hall and two rooms, but alas at the moment is empty and – inevitably – falling into neglect: surely some use can be found for the place?
An entrance into the former demesne of Affane, County Waterford. The core of the house here dated from the 17th century but had a new front added in the first half of the 19th century with canted bows on either side of the entrance. These ashlar gateposts with screen walls on either side and arched pedestrian openings on either side were probably erected around the same time. Once leading towards the main building, now they go nowhere but provide a reminder of what used to be here: the house itself is a ruined shell.
Notable for having been largely designed early in the last century by architect Clough Williams-Ellis, the village of Cushendun, County Antrim has featured here before (see Cornwall in Ulster « The Irish Aesthete). Since the mid-1950s, much of the place has been in National Trust’s ownership, including the Glenmona, former home of Ronald John McNeill, Baron Cushendun who commissioned the house from Williams-Ellis after its predecessor was burnt down by the IRA in 1922. For some time the building was leased to the Health and Social Care Board, and used as a nursing home with the inevitable adjustments made to its interior. That arrangement ended and it appears a new purpose has yet to be found for Glenmona. While the National Trust has undertaken much good work on other properties for which it is responsible, such does not appear to be the case here. However, last year an independent body in the social housing sector, Supporting Communities announced that it had been approached by the National Trust ‘to help them re-engage positively with local stakeholders and the community in general’ and to develop the house ‘into a thriving hub for community activity.’ Let’s hope the eventual outcome is that the trust re-engages with this important part of the region’s architectural heritage and that it receives better care than has been the case of late.
The origins of the Aylmer family in Ireland are unclear, but they were certainly here before the end of the 14th century and by the mid-1400s were living at Lyons, County Kildare (the estate was sold by the hopelessly-indebted Michael Aylmer in 1796 to Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry). In 1559 Gerald Aylmer, then aged 11, inherited an estate elsewhere in the county, at Donadea, which had been bought by his father the previous year and where there may well have been some kind of castle, possibly erected by the de Berminghams who had previously held the property. It is thought that in due course Gerald Aylmer constructed a new tower house for himself. This work may have been undertaken around 1587 when he married Mary Travers, widow of the attainted third Viscount Baltinglass. The tower is now the oldest part of the present Doneadea Castle. A lawyer by profession, Gerald Aylmer initially spent much time at the English court but adherence to the Roman Catholic faith might have hindered his chances of preferment. Nevertheless, he was knighted in 1598 and then created a baronet in 1622. Two years later, he and his (second) wife were responsible for building a three-storey block adjacent to the tower. The Donadea estate was duly inherited by the couple’s only son, Sir Andrew Aylmer who, although not a participant in the Confederate Wars from 1641 onwards, was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Meanwhile, the house his father built was burnt and the lands confiscated; they were returned to the family in 1662. Another assault and fire struck the property during the Williamite Wars. Still staunchly Catholic, a succession of Aylmers then all died young, often leaving infant heirs until the time of the sixth baronet Sir FitzGerald Aylmer, who although barely a few months old when he inherited the estate in 1737, managed to live for another 57 years. Raised in England as a member of the Established Church, it was Sir FitzGerald who undertook an extensive reconstruction of the old family house, an old plaque explaining that this work had begun in 1773.
As mentioned, Donadea Castle assumed much of its present form in the last quarter of the 18th century, thanks to Sir FitzGerald Aylmer who inserted large window openings with granite sills into the old building, as well as the canted first-floor Venetian window on the south side of the building. Donadea Castle is U-shaped, a recessed central section flanked by two three-storey towers, one of which was the original residence built by the first baronet. Between the towers is a single-storey bowed entrance screen, probably early 19th century and tentatively attributed (by Andrew Tierney) to Sir Richard Morrison. It may be the latter was also responsible for the rest of the Tudor-style decorations on the building, such as the lines of battlements along the roofs and mouldings above the windows. All of this would have been commissioned by the seventh baronet, Sir Fenton Aylmer, founder of the Kildare Hunt. Morrison could also have been the architect of a free-standing crenellated tower to the west of the building; above a staircase window is a datestone of 1837 with the motto Non Dormit qui Custodit (He who guards does not sleep) proposing that the tower was used as a muniments store. This tower was commissioned by the eighth baronet, Sir Gerald Aylmer, who was also responsible for many other improvements on the estate, not least the creation of an eight-acre enclosed garden immediately behind the castle, as well as the demesne wall, gate lodges and the planting of a fine lime avenue.
The ninth Aylmer baronet, Sir Gerald, inherited the Donadea estate in 1878, but died five years later, followed in 1885 by his heir, Sir Justin Aylmer: aged just 21 and an undergraduate at Cambridge, he was killed in a cycling accident. While the baronetcy then went sideways (to a younger son of the seventh baronet and then, just two months later, to his grandson), Donadea was inherited by Sir Justin’s only surviving sister, Caroline Aylmer, who lived there unmarried for the next half-century. On her own death in 1935, she left the property to the Church of Ireland, which quickly sold on the estate to the Land Commission. In due course, the castle was unroofed and the surrounding lands handed over to Coillte, the state-owned forestry body. Alas, while Coillte may be first-rate at looking after trees, its record in taking care of any buildings is pretty dismal, as can be seen by visitors to Donadea who over successive years have seen the castle and its surroundings allowed to fall further and further into dereliction, to the point that now cracks are appearing in walls and collapse is a real possibility. Given the property’s history, its convenient location and popularity as a site, this neglect seems especially reprehensible. Indifference can be the only explanation for Coillte’s failure to ensure Donadea Castle remains in decent repair; why, for example, have surviving features such as the charming Gothic-style wooden frames in many windows, not been removed and preserved? Why is it that a rare example of 17th century bay window with stone mullions should now be crudely filled with cement blocks (while the stonework above is left to become dangerously loose)? Unless serious intervention occurs soon, little of consequence will be left here. Another blot on our record of caring for the country’s architectural heritage.
Two weeks ago, the fifth and final volume of records published in 1913 by Ireland’s original Georgian Society was discussed here. That might have been the end of such documentation of this country’s 18th century architectural heritage in the years prior to the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. But in 1915 two men decided that more research into Irish country houses was required, and so produced a volume called Georgian Mansions in Ireland. The individuals involved, Page Lawrence Dickinson and Thomas Ulick Sadleir, are of some interest. Born in 1881 and 1882 respectively, both were sons of clergymen, Sadleir’s father being a chaplain to the army stationed at the Curragh Camp, County Kildare. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, Sadleir junior was called to the Irish bar in 1906 and practised on the Leinster circuit for the next ten years. But his real passion was genealogy and even while a student he was working on an unpaid basis in the Office of the Ulster King of Arms at Dublin Castle. In 1915, the year in which Georgian Mansions in Ireland appeared, he was appointed registrar of the Order of St. Patrick at the Office of Arms, becoming Deputy Ulster in 1921, although due to the extensive absences of his superior he was in effect in charge and remained so until 1943 when the Office of Arms was finally transferred to the control of the Irish State. He subsequently became librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, remaining there until his death in 1957. As for Dickinson, he was a son of the Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. In his late teens, he was apprenticed to architect Richard Caulfield Orpen (a brother of the painter William Orpen) with whom he then went into partnership. But he seems to have been as much a writer as an architect, being a frequent contributor to the Irish Builder (of such pieces as ‘Working class homes. Is the present standard reasonable?’ in January 1923, and ‘Competitions. Should they be abolished?’ in November 1924). He was clearly out of sympathy with post-Independence Ireland and for many years lived in England, his nostalgia for the ancien régime apparent in a memoir published in 1929, The Dublin of Yesterday, which as can be imagined was not well received in this country. Nevertheless he did return here, dying at his daughter’s house in County Wicklow in 1958.
In their Preface to Georgian Mansions in Ireland, Sadleir and Dickinson rightly acknowledge the work undertaken by the earlier Georgian Society, but note that the fifth volume only examined a few 18th century houses found throughout the country, thereby necessitating their own enterprise. In addition, they observed that while many of Dublin’s great houses had fallen into disrepair, ‘the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rack-rent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
Interestingly, Sadleir and Dickinson remark that Irish country houses seldom held valuable china, but ‘good pictures, plate and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon.’ Waxing poetic, they then write, ‘How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni or that fashionable Irish artist, Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entrail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Desart Court, County Kilkenny: burnt down by the IRA, February 1923
The main body of text in Georgian Mansions in Ireland is devoted to study of 17 houses (some given more attention than others). Of these, 11 still stand, three remaining in the hands of the original owners’ descendants and another three in private hands, albeit not those of the original family. Two (in Northern Ireland) are National Trust properties, one is an hotel, one belongs to a public company and one has become part of a national institution. Of the losses, two – Bessborough and Desart Court, both in County Kilkenny – occurred just a few years after the book was published, victims of the campaign waged against such buildings and their owners during the troubles of the early 1920s, one – Heywood, County Laois – was lost owing to an accidental fire in 1950 and two – Platten Hall, County Meath and Turvey, County Dublin – were left to suffer years of neglect before being pulled down.
Despite their optimistic tone about the state of such houses, the authors of Georgian Mansions in Ireland seem to have had an instinctive awareness of impending threat to the buildings’ future, since they made a point of recording not just architectural but also decorative details, describing – and photographing – plasterwork and paintings, chimneypieces and contents of entire rooms, thereby leaving us a detailed record of how such places looked just over a century ago. Occasionally, as with Curraghmore, County Waterford, little has changed during the intervening period, but more often, even if the house still stands, its entire furnishings have been lost or else horribly culled. Again, we owe Sadleir and Dickinson a debt of gratitude for providing us with this invaluable legacy, an opportunity to examine how Irish country houses were once decorated and occupied.
A number of state-sponsored programmes exist to encourage the revival of the country’s smaller urban centres, such as the Town and Village Renewal Scheme (begun 2016) and the Historic Towns Initiative (begun 2018). And yet, wherever one goes around Ireland, the same scenario can still be found: perfectly decent houses being left to fall into ruin. The question needs to be asked: why? Especially during what is universally acknowledged to be a national shortage of decent housing, why should this be the case. Why, for example, do local authorities – which have the relevant powers available to them under the 2000 Planning Act, not intervene? Why do we all seem to take it for granted that our towns and villages should display ample evidence of abandoned and neglected properties? Here is an example of this unhappy state of affairs: a fine red-brick house on the outskirts of Ardee, County Louth. Behind the double canted bay facade, the building is L-shaped and incorporates a small yard, while to the rear and now incorporated into a range of (equally dilapidated) outbuildings, stands a 15th century tower house: all are in equally neglected state. The national Buildings of Ireland website (www.buildingsofireland.ie) proposes a date of c.1900 for its construction, but a pediment over the main entrance contains the initials LCC (presumably representing Louth County Council) and the date 1931: does this mean the building was constructed at that time, or simply taken over at that time by the local authority? But more importantly, why today is it being allowed to deteriorate?