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.
Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary dates from c.1745 but the house was extensively remodelled in the second half of the 1860s and it was at that time that the first-floor landing was given its present appearance. Exceptionally wide, the space is generously lit by a circular glazed dome resting on a sequence of shallow arches. These are supported by what appear to be marble columns. In fact, the latter are only painted and one quirky detail is that the surface pattern of each column features a number of human profiles, said to represent members of the Trench family who were then owners of the property.
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.
The former Cistercian abbey of Holy Cross in County Tipperary derives its name from a fragment of the cross on which Christ was supposed to have been crucified. There are various stories told about how this fragment came to be housed here, both Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême, second wife of Henry’s son King John, being cited as donors, although neither case seems probable since neither woman ever came to Ireland nor had they any direct dealings with the country. More likely it was given by Donal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond, who granted the establishment on the banks of the river Suir its foundation charter in 1185/6 (although Cistercian monks from Monasteranenagh, County Limerick seemingly settled at the site a few years earlier). Initially, the new monastery struggled to survive and its survival was in question. However, in the 15th century, from which period most of the extant buildings date, Holy Cross Abbey came under the patronage of the powerful Butler family, receiving particular favour from the fourth earl of Ormond, and this marked a turning point in the house’s fortunes. It also appears that around the same time the monastery became a place of pilgrimage, owing to the possession of the aforementioned cross fragment: might the latter only have arrived on the site then?
As already noted, most of the surviving buildings at Holy Cross Abbey date from the 15th century. From the time of its foundation, only the north arcade of the church’s aisle, parts of the south aisle, the monks’ doorway to the cloister and some traces of early Gothic lancets in the west gable, remain. Otherwise, what one finds here was created during a wholesale reconstruction in the 1430s. As noted by Roger Stalley in his monograph on Ireland’s Cistercian monasteries (1987), the church’s design ‘followed a conventional layout, with a square presbytery and two chapels in each transept. There are lierne vaults over the presbytery, crossing and north transept, and the windows contain a varied range of curvilinear tracery.’ To the south of the church lie what remains of the cloister and the ranges around this, that to the east incorporating a barrel-vaulted sacristy and chapter house, while the west side three linked dwelling chambers above vaulted basements. As for the cloisters, the section along the north side closest to the church was largely re-erected some decades ago, while smaller sections to the west and east survive. Further east of the claustral enclosure are additional, free-standing ruins which may have been the abbot’s dwelling, guest accommodation or an infirmary.
Like all such establishments, during the 16th century Reformation Holy Cross Abbey was closed and its occupants, the monastery and its land being granted to the then-Earl of Ormond, a member of the same family which had once done so much for the same place. Yet, as was often the case in this country, although the religious house had been officially shut, members of the order continued to live in the buildings or within their vicinity; there were, apparently monks at Holy Cross until the mid-18th century after which the old church and monastery fell into ruin. In the late 19th century, the remains were declared a national monument, and almost a century later, work began to restore the church so that it might be used for religious services again; today it acts as the local place of worship for Roman Catholics. While the restoration of the church was widely applauded, not everyone was equally enthusiastic about further alterations subsequently undertaken elsewhere on the site, Stalley commenting, ‘Some of the more recent work is of an unacceptably low standard for what is one of Ireland’s outstanding national monuments.’ And it is disappointing to see so little respect shown for the historic fabric even of the church. The chancel, for example, contains a splendid 15th century limestone sedilia, often considered the finest of its kind in Ireland. Rising 17 feet with a lavishly carved canopied roof over the seats, ugly electric wiring is draped across the top of this important monument, and an array of sockets and other items installed immediately adjacent in a frankly crass manner. Especially after the trouble and expense taken over rescuing it from ruin, the management of such an important part of our heritage deserves greater consideration.
Two weeks ago, this site discussed the first four volumes of records published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society, established in 1908. The organisation declared from the start an intention that it should exist for a few years only, during which this series would be issued annually as a visual account of Dublin’s architectural heritage, particularly of buildings dating from the 18th century. However, for the final publication, which appeared in 1913, the society ventured outside the capital to explore historic houses around the rest of the country. As the Introduction explained, ‘the Committee thought they would make this fifth volume more interesting by going abroad through Ireland, and examining in the light of prominent examples, how far the Georgian architecture of country houses in Ireland corresponded with that of the capital during this period. In most cases, gentlemen had a hôtel (as the French would call it) in the city which they used especially when they came up to attend the Irish Parliament.’ The text goes on to note that in many instances, either the town or country house has since been lost, in the case of the latter claiming ‘the disappearance was due, not to neglect or poverty, but to wealth and a change of taste.’ It soon becomes evident that the writer(s) of this text did not care for the previous century’s Gothic revival, regarding the work of Francis Johnston and the Morrisons père et fils with a certain disapproval and commenting ‘even these early nineteenth-century houses, which were not Gothic, differ so completely in style from the work of the eighteenth century, that anyone may recognise it at first sight.’
Whether or not one agrees with the fifth volume’s judgemental tone about Irish country houses built later than 1800, the work itself is an invaluable document for several reasons. The first is that it includes photographs and drawings of buildings since lost, quite a lot of them within a decade during the years of Ireland’s War of Independence and Civil War. In some instances, they are almost the only visual evidence of these houses that we still possess. Just as importantly, but perhaps less appreciated, these pictures show how such houses were decorated and furnished at the time. Again, this information is quite priceless since almost without exception the contents of such properties has since been lost or dispersed. For a small number, inventories survive of their contents and for others, lists were compiled by owners when applying for compensation following their houses destruction during the aforementioned years of upheaval. But nothing compares with a photograph, showing individual items in situ and giving us a better understanding than any document could of how such a building functioned. Another helpful feature of this volume is the ‘Catalogue of Georgian Houses in Ireland’, which is a list of such buildings in each county in 1913. It is, of course, far from being complete, and reflects the compilers’ prejudices towards post-1800 houses. Nevertheless, the catalogue provides a reader with ample information, since each entry includes not just the name of the property, but also – where known – the architect and date of construction, original and then owner, sources of information about the place (such as references in earlier published accounts) and finally what is described as ‘particulars.’ The last of these is the most tantalising of all, since it often contains details of houses long-since lost. Few people today, for example, are likely to have heard of Pennyville, otherwise called Croydon Park, which stood in Clontarf, County Dublin and which, according to the catalogue’s compilers was an ‘early house, with very thick walls, and long rooms opening off one another. Drawing-room has coved rococo frieze.’ A photograph exists of James Larkin and members of the Irish Citizen Army drilling in front of Croydon Park in 1914: the house was demolished in the 1920s as part of the Marino housing scheme. Also largely forgotten: Hortland, County Kildare, a house dating from c.1748. Believed to have been designed by Richard Castle, and built for Josiah Hort, Archbishop of Tuam, according to the catalogue the building contained ‘Staircase in side hall, similar to No.20 Kildare St., Dublin [also attributed to Castle], and deep cornice above. State bedroom with coved ceiling. Good mantel in drawing room, in two marbles and carved centre panel, Diana with dog, &c. Cut-stone doorway, with Ionic columns in entablatures.’ The house was subsequently demolished.
The fifth volume pays particular attention to nine houses, the majority of which are still standing and only one, Summerhill, County Meath, discussed here in the past (see My Name is Ozymandias « The Irish Aesthete) has been been entirely lost. Of the others, two – Castletown, County Kildare and Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin – are in state ownership, one managed by a trust (Russborough, County Wicklow), one converted into an hotel (Carton, County Kildare) and the other four remain in private ownership, although only one of these still occupied by descendants of the original family, namely Mount Ievers, County Clare (discussed here also some time ago, see A Place of Magic « The Irish Aesthete). How, one wonders, do these statistics compare to those of other countries? And, as already mentioned, another feature of the texts – and their accompanying images – is the information they provide on the properties’ contents at the time since almost without exception these have since been dispersed/lost/destroyed. Among the greatest losses was a superlative panelled mid-18th century saloon formerly in Rossanagh, County Wicklow. Dismantled and removed from the building in the 1920s and sold out of the country, its subsequent fate is unclear, perhaps blown to pieces in a London bombing during the Second World War, perhaps still surviving somewhere in the United States but certainly no longer in its country of origin. Such, regrettably, has too often been the story of our heritage.
In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.
Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation.
Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today.
The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on change.org (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood · Change.org)
As already mentioned, the photographs and drawings reproduced in successive volumes published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society during the first years of the last century are often our only record of how Dublin then looked. In particular, these images show many buildings which, over the past 100 years, have been – in many cases needlessly and recklessly – destroyed. One of the reasons why Desmond and Mariga Guinness revived the Irish Georgian Society in 1958 was precisely because they saw fine 18th century houses – such as those in Kildare Place and Dominick Street – being torn down, without any record being kept of how these properties looked. Indeed, the body which should be the foremost custodian and fiercest defender of the city’s architectural heritage, namely Dublin City Council (formerly Dublin Corporation) has instead been consistently negligent in caring for the city’s fabric, in keeping a proper record of its historic architecture and in preserving important parts of buildings that have perforce been demolished. Instead, such work has been left either to charitable organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Architectural Archive, or concerned individuals like Peter Pearson and others. As demonstrated by the recent, and ongoing saga over the future of the city’s Iveagh Markets – as well as the shameful decades-long neglect of O’Connell Street, the lengthy failure to redevelop the historic Mary’s Lane market site, the near-20 year wait to restore a terrace of houses on the north side of Parnell Square (even more important after the grotesque fiasco of a so-called new ‘Cultural Quarter’ failed to materialise) and so forth – the city council continues to show scant concern for ensuring the survival of historic Dublin. Hence the ongoing need today for the same imagination and initiative shown by the original Georgian Society back in 1908. Little, it seems, has changed over the past 110-plus years.
The preface to the first volume of the Irish Georgian Society’s Records of Eighteenth-Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration in Dublin (published 1909) opens as follows: ‘It requires no intimate knowledge of Dublin to perceive that it is not a provincial town, but a fading capital. The great public buildings of the eighteenth century which are its glory make that fact evident.’ The text goes on to note how ‘The gradual disuse of the older residential quarters, as the city gradually shifted and expanded during the last hundred years, has converted most of the fine mansions, once occupied by a wealthy aristocracy, into warehouses and public institutions; while in other cases, whole streets have fallen into decay, and houses set up with decorated walls and ceilings, fine mantelpieces, mahogany doors and carved wood-work, are now occupied as tenement houses by the poor. It followed, naturally enough, that all ornaments which could be utilised elsewhere, notably the old mantelpieces, were removed and sold, and now adorn rich houses far away.’ It was precisely an awareness of these melancholy facts that led to the society’s establishment, and to the production of a series of volumes over five years. The first four of these were exclusively devoted to Dublin (the fifth looked at a number of important Irish country houses), each accompanied by relevant texts that looked not just at the architecture and decoration of the buildings, but also at subjects such as ‘Society in Georgian Dublin’ (Vol.II) and ‘The Furnishing of Georgian Houses in Dublin’ (Vol.IV). As a field of study, art history was then barely in its infancy, so one cannot expect too much academic insight. On the other hand, the compilers of these volumes were much closer to the period under consideration that we are today: some of them would have known people who were actually alive when Georgian Dublin was still in its heyday: the society’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, for example, was born in 1839. But more important that the texts are the abundant photographs and drawings with which each volume is filled. So often, they show buildings since lost and therefore represent an invaluable record, in many instances the only visual source existing today. For that, we owe the original Irish Georgian Society an enormous debt of gratitude.
On Saturday, February 22nd 1908, page 7 of the Irish Times carried a variety of international and local news. Readers were informed, for example, that ‘Thirty-five terrorists were arrested yesterday in various parts of St. Petersburg, many in the open streets; some showed fight, firing revolvers and wounding their captors. A few carried bombs.’ Meanwhile, in Vienna, it was announced that festivities planned that spring to mark the diamond jubilee of the Emperor Franz-Joseph had been cancelled, ‘owing to the state of his Majesty’s health.’ In France, the trial was underway of a Sub-Lieutenant Charles B Ullmo for selling naval secrets to Germany (despite his defence counsel’s pleas for clemency on the grounds that the young man ‘was a victim of the opium habit, and that he had fallen under the influence of an unscrupulous woman, for whom he had squandered his fortune and ruined his life’, Ullmo would be found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment), in San Francisco a private bank collapsed and a Japanese steamer was wrecked off the coast of Alaska. One column, however, was dedicated to reporting on the inaugural meeting held the previous evening on the premises of the Royal Irish Academy of a new organisation. This would come to be called the Irish Georgian Society.
30 Jervis Street, Dublin (since demolished)
The Irish Georgian Society’s inaugural meeting was chaired by the new organisation’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, who then held the chair in Ancient History at Trinity College Dublin, becoming the institution’s Provost in 1914. According to the Irish Times, the ever-busy Countess of Aberdeen, wife of Ireland’s then-Lord Lieutenant, although on her way to another meeting, ‘showed her interest in the proceedings by paying a short visit, remaining while the Chairman was explaining the objects for which the society was to be formed.’ These were, in brief, to preserve as far as possible by means of photographs or drawings, a record of the decorative work inside houses built during what Mahaffy described as Dublin’s golden epoch. Warming to his theme, the chairman imagined a stranger visiting the city and quickly recognising its exceptional character, being that of a former capital. The stranger would note that although houses around Dublin were designed by different architects, built by different men, in different but on the whole harmonious styles, and carried out mainly or almost altogether by Irish genius and Irish workmen. If the same stranger then ventured inside these houses, ‘he would find a beauty of decoration and dignity of style which would strike him as one of the most remarkable things in the Europe of that day.’
Speaking at the same meeting, the National Gallery of Ireland’s Registrar, Walter Strickland made many of the same points, noting how many historic buildings in the centre of Dublin were already being destroyed, but not before the contents of their interiors had been stripped out. Chimneypieces, he commented, ‘were sold to grace the drawingrooms of London’, stucco was hacked away, iron- and wood-work replaced or allowed to fall into decay. If the members of the society could not prevent this wanton destruction, he argued, ‘they could at least record and preserve pictorially the beauties of their old houses’, and this would be the organisation’s purpose: to provide testimony for the future of ‘the ceilings, the carved woodwork, the staircase, the beautiful doorways and lamp standards, and in doing this they would record work not only beautiful, but work executed by Dublin craftsmen.’
Professor Mahaffy advised those attending the meeting that the Irish Georgian Society intended to exist only for a short period, three or perhaps five years (in the event, it was the latter). However, at the end of that time the organisation planned to leave a lasting legacy which would ‘restore to the architects and craftsmen of Dublin their true credit,’ which had hitherto been obscured by the widespread belief that this work had been undertaken by foreigners ‘whilst our people were looking on helplessly.’ He recalled a recent visit to his house of a young cabinetmaker who admired a piece of furniture in one of the rooms with tears in his eyes. When asked what was the matter, the man replied, ‘I am thinking of the poor fellow that made this. He was a great workman. He is dead and gone now; his name is forgotten, and none of us will ever know who he was.’ Professor Mahaffy hoped that the newly-formed Irish Georgian Society would prevent the work of the 18th century being forgotten, ‘and would preserve a worthy record of it for succeeding generations.’
Gable-fronted houses in Sweeny’s Lane, Dublin (since demolished)
Since travel restrictions are once more in place, and look likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, over the coming weeks this site will intermittently look at endeavours which since the early 20th century have sought to curb widespread desire in Ireland to obliterate evidence of the country’s exceptional architectural heritage.
All photographs taken from Volume 1 of the Irish Georgian Society Records (published 1909)
‘Inver House embodied one of those large gestures of the minds of the earlier Irish architects, some of which still stand to justify Ireland’s claim to be a civilised country. It was a big, solemn, square house of three stories, built of cut stone, grandly planned, facing west in two immense sweeping curves, with a high-pillared portico between them and stone balustrades around the roof.’
‘The high windows of the great room were bare of blinds and curtains, and the hot afternoon sun beat in unchecked. It was a corner room, looking south towards the demesne, and its longer western side was built out in a wide, shallow curve, with two massive pillars of green Galway marble marking at either end the spring of the curve, and supporting a heavy gilt cornice above the broad window.’
‘Everything that had survived of the original conception of the room, the heavy, tall teak doors, with their carved architraves and brass furniture, the huge, brass-mounted fireplace, the high mantelpiece of many coloured marbles, chipped and defaced, but still beautiful, the gorgeous deep-moulded ceiling that Lady Isabella’s Italian workmen had made for her, from the centre of which the wreck of a cut-glass chandelier still hung, all told of the happy conjunction of art and wealth, and of a generous taste that would make the best of both. But a cursory glance would show how long past were the glories of a great room.’
The above passages are taken from Somerville & Ross’s The Big House of Inver, published in 1925, and while their descriptions of Inver are not an exact match, nonetheless in spirit they seem to capture what one can see, and feel, at Scregg, County Roscommon. Dating from the mid-18th century, the house and surrounding land has for hundreds of years belonged to a branch of the ancient Irish Kelly family and was occupied until the 1980s but has since stood empty. How little in some ways has Ireland changed since the time of Somerville & Ross.