A Man of Taste and Influence

The text below originally appeared here in 2015. Tomorrow at Sotheby’s in London many of the items in the accompanying photographs will be offered for sale; thankfully not all, since some key pieces such as the 1770s sofas, the Axminster carpet from c.1820-30 and 19th century beds with their original hangings have been offered on loan to the state for public display. Nevertheless, the contents of another historic Irish house are being broken up because there is little or no official support for owners of such properties struggling to survive and eventually they are left with no option but to sell.
It is worth pointing out – again – that legislation has existed on the Irish statute books for many decades which is supposed to ensure that valuable paintings, furniture and so forth remain in this country. The Documents and Pictures (Regulation of Export) Act dates from 1945 and was, in theory at least, supplemented by the National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997. The idea behind these pieces of legislation is that before any item over a certain fairly low value can leave the country, the parties responsible are required to seek permission from government-appointed authorities (until July 2015 usually one of the main national cultural institutions.*) However, there is no known instance where such an export licence has been refused; auction houses have long understood that this is a mere paper-filling formality. Tomorrow’s sale, for example, also includes a mahogany dining table attributed to Mack, Williams and Gibton and dated c.1815. It was listed in an inventory made of the contents of Carton, County Kildare in 1818 and has remained in the house until now when, after 200 years, it will be offered for sale tomorrow.
Vendors vend, buyers buy, auctioneers auction. Across millennia collections have been assembled and dispersed. There are no villains here, no one deserves to be castigated for acting in an untoward fashion. But there is, as has been the case for too long, evidence of clear neglect on the part of the Irish state towards what becomes of our patrimony, and an obvious want of concern over how this has been steadily whittled down, year by year, house by house. One must ask what is the function of legislation observed in name only? Surely the purpose of enacting the laws mentioned above was to ensure that a reasonable effort would be made to retain valuable works of art and collections in Ireland? That is currently not the case. A general election takes place here in a few weeks’ time: readers might like to ask any candidates they encounter for an opinion on the national heritage and what might be done to retain whatever is still here. Otherwise expect more sales.

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Despite the many advances made in Irish architectural history over recent decades, some areas remain in need of further investigation. Among the most obvious of these is the question of attribution. There are significant houses across the country yet to be assigned to any architect, and others which need to have their accreditations reassessed. In the latter category are those properties given accreditations by the late Knight of Glin in the early 1960s when he was engaged on his uncompleted thesis on the subject of Irish Palladianism. At the time there was far less information available on or interest in architectural history than is now the case, and therefore the Knight was to a large extent dependent on instinct when allocating various houses to different architects, about whom little or nothing was known. Often he had to rely on his eye rather than on documentation, and as he admitted towards the end of his life, mistakes were made. To date insufficient effort has been made to correct these and as a result attributions made half a century ago still stand. An obvious opportunity for correction occurred with the appearance of the relevant volume in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland series published earlier this year, but the editors failed to avail of this opportunity. A reassessment of the Knight’s attributions still awaits requiring someone able to combine scholarship with connoisseurship. Until such time, in particular the output of gentlemen architects like Francis Bindon (whose name has appeared here on more than one occasion) will remain unclear. On the other hand, thanks to another book published in 2015 we are now in a much better position to assess the oeuvre of another talented 18th century amateur, Nathaniel Clements.

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In 1754 John Carteret Pilkington published the third and final volume of his late mother Letitia’s celebrated memoirs in which he described Nathaniel Clements as being ‘a certain great man in Ireland, whose place of abode is not remote from Phoenix Park…whose acquirements have justly raised him from obscurity to opulence [and] whose extensive plans in building have excited an universal admiration of his taste in architecture.’ As Clements’ new biographer Anthony Malcomson noted, it was perhaps something of an exaggeration to claim he had raised himself from ‘obscurity’ but as a fifth son he would have been expected to make his own way in the world, especially since his father died when he was only seventeen. That father, Robert Clements had inherited an estate in County Cavan but in 1707 had secured the important, and lucrative, post of Teller to the Irish Exchequer. This job passed to his eldest son Theophilus who badly bungled his own financial affairs as was discovered when he died in 1728. Nevertheless, both the family and Nathaniel Clements were by this time sufficiently well connected for the Tellership of the Exchequer to pass to him, a job he held for the next twenty-seven years during which time, as Pilkington commented, he made himself exceedingly rich. His substantial income was boosted by money received from non-residents in receipt of an Irish pension for whom he acted as agent for decades (Malcolmson estimates that by the mid-1740s his annual income from this job alone was £1,500). He also held numerous other offices, all of which brought in additional funds. Much of this was used to acquire land, the most reliable form of investment in a period when banks failed regularly (as did that established by Clements and a couple of partners in 1759). By the end of his life he had bought up some 85,000 acres spread across three counties and producing an income of around £6,000 each year.

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Another area of investment in which Clements engaged was housing, beginning with his participation in the development of Dublin’s Henrietta Street. The man behind this project, and others on the northern banks of the Liffey, was Luke Gardiner to whom Clements was related by marriage. Named after Henrietta, Duchess of Bolton, an old friend of Gardiner, whose husband acted as Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant in 1717-20, the street was from the start intended to be the capital’s premier address, its two sides lined with houses of princely splendor. As so often the case throughout 18th century Dublin, the exterior of the buildings, mostly standard red-brick and occupying sites of varying proportions, gave – and continue to give – insufficient notice of what lay behind the facades. Clements was responsible for constructing a number of houses on the street, beginning with Number 8 which was finished around 1733 and let to Colonel (later General) Richard St George. Three or four others then followed before he moved to Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the initial development of which was likewise overseen by Gardiner. Here Clements built several more properties including a family residence that came to be known as Leitrim House. But having become ranger of the Phoenix Park in 1750 (having previously acted as deputy-ranger) he embarked on building himself a smart and substantial new villa. The Ranger’s Lodge was a five-bay, two-storey over full-height basement house on either side of which quadrants connected to L-shaped single-storey wings. Clements and his socially-ambitious wife hosted opulent parties on the premises intended to impress their contemporaries and to cement the couple’s place in Ireland’s hierarchy. In June 1760 for example, it was reported that the Clementses ‘gave an elegant entertainment to several of the nobility and gentry at his lodge in the Phoenix Park, which was illuminated in the most brilliant manner.’ Five years after Nathaniel Clements’ death in 1777, his son Robert sold the lodge to the government which then converted – and subsequently – enlarged the building for use as a Viceregal residence. Today the same property is known as Áras an Uachtaráin and occupied by the President of Ireland.

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Nathaniel Clements’ engagement in speculative building, together with his reputation as an arbiter of taste, led to several buildings being attributed to him by the Knight of Glin. These included Brookelawn and Colganstown, County Dublin; Williamstown and Newberry Hall, County Kildare; and Beauparc and Belview, County Meath. All can be dated to c.1750-65, and all share certain stylistic similarities, not least reliance on Palladianism which by that date was fast falling from fashion. While respecting the Knight’s notion of Clements as an architect, and one responsible for the houses listed above, Maurice Craig in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976) proposes that he was ‘eclectic’ not least because ‘he picked and chose his elements from pattern-books and combined them so that they compose well enough together: but they do not interact on one another.’ However, given his many other professional and financial interests, it must now be accepted that Clements was not an architect as we would understand the term. Rather he was an influence, or as Malcomson proposes, ‘a role model’, someone to turn to for advice. Furthermore, the design of his Ranger’s Lodge provided the prototype for a new generation of villa-farms that were not grand country houses but residences at the centre of working estates. All this is applicable to a house which has long been ascribed to Nathaniel Clements because it was built for his eldest son and heir Robert who in 1795 was created first Earl of Leitrim. Killadoon, County Kildare, shown in the pictures here today, surely ought to have been designed by Nathaniel Clements but even Mark Bence-Jones in his 1978 Guide to Irish Country Houses argued that ‘apart from having the “pattern-book” tripartite doorway with a fanlight, a baseless pediment and engaged columns which he seems to have favoured, it lacks the characteristics of the houses known to be by him or convincingly attributed to him.’ In fact, as Malcomson shows, Nathaniel and Robert Clements had a troubled relationship and he proposes that the older man’s input into the house’s design ‘must have been limited.’ The need for a thorough re-examination of 18th century architectural attribution remains.

*In July 2015 An Taisce took a successful case in the High Court against the state delegating responsibility for the granting of export licenses to cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Ireland. However, this does not appear to have made any difference to such licenses being granted.


Nathaniel Clements, 1705-77: Politics, Fashion and Architecture in mid-Eighteenth-Century Ireland by Anthony Malcomson is published by Four Courts Press

Off with His Head


A stained glass window in the chancel of St John the Baptist, Duhill, County Tipperary. It is one of two designed and made by Harry Clarke for this little parish church. That to the left of the altar depicts a rather insipid Bernadette receiving a vision of the Virgin at Lourdes. In contrast that on the right-hand side is altogether more earthy (and more gorgeously coloured) and, inspired by the saint to whom the building is dedicated, shows the moment after his death when Salome beholds the newly-executed John’s head on a salver, observed by Herod and Herodias. Dating from 1925, the window commemorates local woman Margaret Byrne and her two brothers, both of whom had been priests..

Before and After


Dublin’s Ormond Quay derives its name from James Butler, first Duke of Ormond who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the late 1670s when this area of the city was undergoing extensive redevelopment, driven by Sir Humphrey Jervis. Ormond Quay is divided into Upper and Lower, the latter being to the west, the former to the east. 18 Upper Ormond Quay lies in the middle of this area, a part of Dublin that, until the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries, had for hundreds of years belonged to the Cistercians of St Mary’s Abbey. The house first built on the new quay is likely to have been quite modest, probably of two storeys, its pitched roof having dormer windows looking onto the river Liffey to the immediate south. The earliest reference to this property, which dates from a lease agreement of February 1725, makes mention to ‘stables and warehouse lying behind it.’
Less that twenty years later, another legal document indicates that the original building was replaced by a taller house, with ‘Dutch Billy’ gable façade. Then at some date around the 1760s, what had earlier been described as a ‘warehouse’ to the rear (fronting onto adjacent Arran Street East) was also reconstructed, probably with commercial premises on the ground floor and a handsome reception room lit by three windows above; portions of the latter’s elegant rococo cornice survive. Further alterations occurred in the late 1780s when the front of the building overlooking the quays was given a granite-arcaded façade, similar to those introduced elsewhere in the city by the Wide Street Commissioners and familiar to anyone who has studied the design of retail premises in the Georgian and retail period when the retailers began to understand merits of good shop front design.
18 Upper Ormond Quay does not seem to have flourished over the next few decades, and when a new lessee took on the premises in 1821, it was with the intention that the building serve as a tavern. The decline was not arrested, and in July 1842 the property was deemed to be ‘in a very decayed and ruinous state and in danger of falling.’ No wonder it took a mere ten shillings for the then-lease holder to surrender any interest in the house. However, despite its shabby condition, the building did not fall, nor was it pulled down. Instead, substantial new work was undertaken on the site.





In 1842 the freehold owner of 18 Ormond Quay, George Robert Dawson (a former MP and incidentally great-grandson of Joshua Dawson who built Dublin’s Mansion House in 1710) conveyed a new lease for the building to James Hamilton for 61years at an annual rent of £36 18s.6d, but on the condition that Hamilton spend ‘the full sum of eight hundred pounds sterling in lasting material and valuable improvements.’ As a result, over the next few years the premises were extensively renovated and assumed much of the appearance still seen today, the modifications including exterior upper walls of yellow brick (subsequently pebbledashed) and a reordering of the late 18th century shopfront. James Hamilton in turn leased the property to various tea, wine and spirit merchants as well as grocers, the storeys above ground floor usually being occupied by solicitors. In 1902 the latest grocer in residence, Edward Corcoran was required to carry out a number of improvements, not least installation of proper sewers and water closets. Ten years later the building became an hotel and restaurant, just the latter operating on the ground floor from the late 1940s with the area above serving as an informal boarding house. The next change came in 1970 when Watts Bros, an established firm of gun & rifle makers and fishing tackle manufacturers bought the property for £8,000. They remained here for thirty years but closed down in 2000, and once again the building was sold. It served as an alternative art space run by Farcry Productions, which painted on the old shopfront fascia the name ‘Adifferentkettleoffishaltogether’, before coming into the hands of Dublin Civic Trust in 2017.





Established in 1992, Dublin Civic Trust is an independent body intended to promote greater recognition and appreciation of traditional buildings and streetscapes. The organisation’s main objectives include the preservation and enhancement of the historic core of the capital, reuse of historic buildings in a manner that encourages active residential renewal, and the development of complementary uses that revitalise Dublin’s social and cultural life. What gives the trust its distinctive character is that it leads by example: through the acquisition and refurbishment of properties that are of historical, architectural, archaeological and environmental interest for the public benefit. This has been successfully demonstrated thanks to a revolving rund mechanism which involves training and education in traditional skills, development of best practice conservation techniques and streetscape enhancement.
18 Ormond Quay is the latest instance of Dublin Civic Trust recognising an historic building’s architectural merits and undertaking to bring these once again to the fore. When the organisation some years ago sold its previous property (4 Castle Street, which prior to the trust’s intervention had been scheduled for demolition), it embarked on a fresh challenge with the quayside property. The most immediate problem was a severe lean of the exterior wall towards Arran Street East; this had been caused by the removal of various internal walls during the previous century, and rotted bonding timbers owing to water ingress. Ultimately a four-storey steelwork grid had to be applied on the inside face of the wall to ensure it would remain in place. Other internal timberwork had to be replaced for the same reason, as did much plasterwork, all damage primarily due to water ingress. On the outside, cement pebbledash applied to the upper levels, probably in the 1950s, has been removed, exposing the original yellow brick beneath (and in addition avoiding harmful moisture retention), and the granite arcaded shopfront has been restored to its original appearance. Inside, plasterwork, joinery, floors and ceilings, as well as mechanical and electrical services have all received necessary attention, and many of the rooms have been decorated and sympathetically furnished, all the while retaining the character of the place. But a great deal remains to be done, both in this section of the building, and in the older portion to the rear, that is the Arran Street East site which dates from the 1760s. As mentioned, this contains extensive portions of rococo decorative plasterwork and even rare surviving fragments of 18th century wallpaper: all of this material deserves preservation.
At the moment, Dublin’s historic fabric is under ferocious attack in a way that has not been seen since the 1970s, and both central and local authorities appear to be untroubled by, if not actively supportive of, this assault. Work by small voluntary organizations such as Dublin Civic Trust, which receives minimal support, and must rely on modest annual grants and private donations, ensures that at least some of the capital’s architectural heritage is preserved. Its work deserves to be applauded and supported by anyone who wants to make sure more of what makes Dublin distinctive is not lost. The work undertaken at 18 Ormond Quay represents all that is best about this splendid organisation.


To learn more about Dublin Civic Trust and its work, see: http://www.dublincivictrust.ie/

Old Buildings Speak


Time knows no beginning or end
Old Buildings wave and wend,
And the words live on in the wind…




Old Barns Speak
Of braying donkey and milking cow;
Hens and ducklings, screeching and scratching
In the hay-laden, sweet-funk air.




Time knows no beginning or end
Old Buildings wave and wend,
And the words live on in the wind…


Lines from Old Buildings Speak by Marianne Reninger 

Bring It Home


It is a year almost to the day since the unexpected death of Rolf Loeber. Dutch-born, he was a specialist in child psychology, with a particular interest in juvenile delinquency and for more than three decades had been based at the University of Pittsburgh: at the time of his death, he was that institution’s Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Epidemiology. But while still a student in Holland in the 1960s, he read Maurice Craig’s Dublin, 1660-1840 (first published in 1952) and become fascinated by Ireland’s architectural history. As a result, despite a busy academic career, he somehow found time to produce a series of invaluable articles and books on the subject, beginning with a Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Ireland 1600-1720 which appeared in1981. He was a pioneer in his meticulous scrutiny of archives and his ability to draw together material from a remarkable range of sources, as can be seen in his last book, which is being issued posthumously this week. Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 is typical in being both scholarly and readable, immensely engaging thanks to the author’s enthusiasm and full of insights into the ways in which diverse buildings across the country correspond to each other. One of the chapters contains several pages devoted to Eyrecourt Castle, County Galway and the remarkable staircase once found inside that house. The last conversation I had with Rolf Loeber concerned this staircase and the possibility that, having left Ireland almost a century ago, it might now return here.



As is so often the case in Ireland, despite its name there was nothing remotely castellated about Eyrecourt Castle. The house was built in the 1670s by Colonel John Eyre, an English soldier who had come to this country twenty years earlier and through diverse methods acquired a considerable amount of land in east County Galway (incidentally, Galway’s Eyre Square indicates how involved the Eyre family became in the affairs of the city during this period). On his estate, he began laying out a new town with broad streets, the principal thoroughfare concluding at the gates leading to his house. Given the unsettled nature of the times, it might have been expected the colonel would make sure this new residence was well fortified. Remarkably, however, Eyrecourt Castle was completely unprotected. As can be seen in the top photograph, it was a two-storey manor with dormered attic, the seven-bay façade having a pedimented three-bay breakfront and the wood entrance doorcase featuring Corinthian pilasters flanking a wide entablature centred on an elliptical window surrounded by carved foliage. Were it still standing, Eyrecourt Castle would be the architectural wonder of the West. Alas! The colonel overstretched his resources in the house’s construction (as early as 1677 a trust had been established in which a portion of the estate was set aside for 61 years to cover arrears) and the family finances appear never to have recovered thereafter. Circumstances were not helped by ubsequent generations of Eyres becoming typical members of the Irish gentry, hard-living and hard-drinking squireens.



It is worth quoting in full the description of John Eyre, created first – and last – Baron Eyre of Eyrecourt in 1768, given by dramatist Richard Cumberland (whose father was then Bishop of nearby Clonfert). According to Cumberland, Lord Eyre was ‘Proprietor of a vast extent of soil, not very productive, and inhabiting a spacious mansion, not in the best repair, he lived according to the style of the country, with more hospitality than elegance, and whilst his table groaned with abundance, the order and good taste of its arrangements were little thought of. The slaughtered ox was hung up whole, and the hungry servitor supplied himself with his dole of flesh sliced from off the carcase. His lordship’s day was so apportioned as to give the afternoon by much the largest share of it, during which, from the early dinner to the hour of rest, he never left the chair, nor did the claret ever quit the table. This did not produce inebriety, for it was sipping rather than drinking, that filled up the time, and this mechanical process of gradually moistening the human clay was carried on with very little aid from conversation, for his lordship’s companions were not very communicative, and fortunately he was not very curious. He lived in an enviable independence as to reading, and of course he had no books. Not one of the windows of his castle was made to open, but luckily he had no liking for fresh air, and the consequence may be better conceived than described.’ As this passage indicates, Cumberland’s memoirs are as entertaining and as informative of life in provincial Georgian Ireland, as those of the slightly later Sir Jonah Barrington.
When Lord Eyre died in 1781 the estate was already heavily encumbered, and the next couple of generations of the family ran up further debts, not least owing to their preoccupation with hunting, for which the Eyres kept a stable of 30-40 horses and their own pack of 80 hounds. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, a considerable part of the estate had to be sold but this did nothing to curb the family’s extravagance, leading to further sales in the 1880s; by the time William Henry Gregory Eyre died in 1925, what had once been a holding of more than 30,000 acres had dropped to a little more than 600. The following year, the remainder of the estate was auctioned, together with the contents of the house. Eyrecourt Castle was then abandoned, but not before its staircase had been carefully removed and taken out of the country.



Dating from the time of the house’s construction, Eyrecourt Castle’s staircase took up an extraordinary one-third of the total interior space, and is unlike anything else in Ireland. Made of elm, oak and pine, it comprises two flights of steps that gradually rise to the return where they unite to offer single access to the upper floor, the piano nobile holding the main reception rooms. Rolf Loeber described it as though still in situ: ‘As seen from the downstairs hall, the staircase is partly screened by the Eyre family’s coat of arms, flanked by two arches, ingeniously suspended from the ceiling. On the first steps, the balustrades and newel posts with their wealth of botanical detail become visible, including many carved vases with flowers. At the half-landing, the full extent of the staircase first becomes visible, showing contrasts between the straight lines of the massive bannisters and the rolling down of the carved acanthus leaves from the railings.
The gradual ascent continues to the first floor, where a wall of decorative panelling with superimposed pilasters on each side of the double doors announced the saloon. The high point of the staircase is its rich carving dedicated to nature. The newel posts alone carry thirty carved vases of flowers, mostly freestanding, while others adjoin the walls. Two carved heads of “green men” at the top of the staircase spout acanthus leaves from their mouth, with the leaves rolling down the foliated frieze below the massive bannisters. Other faces of “green men” feature up and down the staircase.’
In 1926 some of the interiors of Eyrecourt Castle, including its staircase, were purchased by the decorating firm of White, Allom & Co., removed from the house and taken to London. White, Allom was run by Sir Charles Allom who specialised in period interiors for American clients: his firm was responsible for laying out the rooms in what is now the Frick Collection in New York. From the mid-1920s Allom worked with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, then fitting out the vast castle he had built in San Simeon, California. Hearst bought the Eyrecourt staircase in 1927 and, taken apart and packed into a series of wooden crates, it was shipped to the United States.* There it sat in the crates until 1951 when Hearst died. His estate subsequently donated the staircase – and much other material besides – to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The crates remained in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, until they were finally opened a few years ago and the multiple pieces of carved wood unpacked.



Among architectural historians, the Eyrecourt staircase enjoys legendary status but it’s safe to say that only a handful of Irish people have ever seen it: two years ago, the Irish Aesthete went to Detroit specifically to do so, and was very kindly taken by one of the institute’s curators to the repository where the photographs shown today were taken. The experience was fascinating, since although dispersed around various sections of the space the structure’s various parts are all present. Numbered and ready for reassembly, the work first needs restorative attention, not least because at some date in the past the wood was stripped and this has had an adverse effect on its condition. But it is a marvel, a stupendous work of Irish craftsmanship and, as already mentioned, unlike anything else now in this country. At the time of his death, Rolf Loeber was investigating the possibility of repatriating the Eyrecourt staircase: this was the subject of our final conversation. Still stored in a suburban warehouse, the likelihood of the item ever being reassembled by its present custodian looks remote. The staircase is a national treasure and ought to be in Ireland. While the cost of doing so is considerable, overlooking this opportunity to bring a masterpiece home would be an unforgiveable oversight. The time has come to start a campaign, so that this exile can return to its native country.
*In 1928 White, Allom assembled the panelled former drawing room from Eyrecourt Castle at an antiques show held in Olympia, London, where it was photographed and described as a ‘Charles II Room.’ The panelling was subsequently acquired by Hearst and installed in two rooms in St Donat’s Castle, Glamorgan.

Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 by Rolf Loeber is published by Four Courts Press, €55.

A Hidden Gem


The innumerable visitors who now come to see Trinity College Dublin’s Old Library (and the Book of Kells held therein) now gain access to the first-floor Long Room via a staircase inserted into the building in 1967 and designed by Ahrends, Burton & Koralek. As a result, they do not have the pleasure of seeing the original staircase at the west end of the building. This is believed to date from c.1750, its design overseen by Richard Castle. The oak stairs ascend around three sides of the double-height space, the ceiling of which features rococo plasterwork by an unknown hand.

Hot Off the Presses


Due to be officially launched tomorrow, Paddy Rossmore: Photographs is a collection of images of Irish buildings taken over half a century ago. For several years in the 1960s, Paddy journeyed around the country, often in the company of Mariga Guinness and the Knight of Glin, exploring our architectural heritage and recording buildings which, sadly too often, have subsequently been lost. Although not a professional photographer, he had an intuitive eye (and excellent travelling companions) and soon discovered a natural talent for composition. Only a handful of his pictures have ever been published (some in Country Life) and I am very happy to have collaborated with Paddy in producing a representative collection of the work. While the majority of the houses included still stand, and a few have even been restored, others – as mentioned – are no more. Below is a representative example of the latter category, Kenure Park, County Dublin which other than its monumental portico was demolished in 1978.


Paddy Rossmore: Photographs is published by Lilliput Press and is available from all good bookshops (and online from www.lilliputpress.ie), price €25.00

Isn’t It Romantic


It is now ten years since the book seen above was first published, and its success among readers helped to inspire the creation of this site. The appetite for information about Ireland’s historic properties, especially among overseas readers and visitors, continues to be astounding, especially when one considers how little is often done to ensure their survival here.




Romantic Irish Homes featured a wide variety of buildings, from relatively modest farmhouses to grand country houses (such as Stradbally Hall, County Laois, the drawing room of which appeared on the book’s cover). Regardless of scale, what they shared was a certain aesthetic: a disregard for passing design trends, an appreciation of the well-used object, a respect for patina. And an abundance of colour: there’s no monochrome interior found between these pages.




Since the book appeared, the Irish Aesthete has discovered many more properties around Ireland which share the same spirit as those featured in Romantic Irish Homes. I will be discussing some of these on Wednesday, November 6th in a talk organized by the Royal Oak Foundation at the Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden Museum in New Orleans, a city imbued with the same romantic spirit.


For more information on my talk in New Orleans, please see: https://www.royal-oak.org/events/2019-fall-new-orleans

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.

Solid, Square and Many Windowed


‘The drive from Athenry is along an excellent rural roadway. The neatly coped walls which enclose the Lambert property soon come into sight, guarding well the vast acreage within them, and beyond on either side are the fairest pastures in the west. The impressive entrance is on the right of the roadway, great gates flanked by semi-circular curves of massive railings: long lines of laurels border the drive to the house, on which may be seen a solitary, leafless tree, gnarled and bent and throwing out a lichen-grey arm halfway across the drive. This, said Mrs O’Donoghue, is the fairies’ tree, where the little people sit at night and plan their pranks. The country folk will tell you that they have seen them, and they will also tell you that if the tree were to be cut down or injured in any way, a very disagreeable visitation would befall those who dared to do it.
The house itself is a great white mansion: solid, square and many windowed, fitted throughout with fine plate glass, and showing pretty blinds and silken curtains at every casement. It is entered by two flights of granite steps leading up to a handsome porch, whilst the interior reveals a large hall with cheerful fire and luxurious armchairs. The drawing room, which has recently been modernized, lies to the left behind immense mahogany doors, and on the right the large dining room is carpeted in crimson which complements the pale lettuce-green walls and shows off the quaintly twisted carving and the light oak paneling. There is a massive buffet in the room which bears the family plate.
Also on the ground floor are the morning room and the schoolroom, besides other apartments; whilst from the centre of the hall rises an elegantly bannistered staircase. As you mount this staircase you are confronted by a truly magnificent stained glass window bearing the crest and coat of arms of the Lambert family. From the half-landing stairways rise to the upper chambers.’
Nannie Power O’Donoghue on Castle Ellen, County Galway in 1900.






Nannie Power O’Donogue (née Ann Stewart Lyster Lambert) was born in Dublin in 1843, her father Charles Lambert having grown up on his family estate, Castle Ellen, County Galway. Believed to be of Yorkshire origin, the Lambert family were settled at Greg Clare not far away by the middle of the 17th century. By the end of the following century Walter Peter Lambert was living at Castle Ellen, initially in a castle but at some indeterminate date (between 1810 and 1840) he built a new residence for himself and his family. In 1846 his grandson, also called Walter Peter, married a Cork heiress, Elizabeth McO’Boy (likely necessary to replenish the family fortune, since his father had had no less than 19 children with two wives). Her money enabled further work to be undertaken on the property. In 1863 for example, extensive alterations and additions to the stables and yards were made to the design of Dublin architect Edward Henry Carson who twelve years earlier had married the owner’s eldest sister Isabella Lambert: their son was Edward Carson who as a child and young man often stayed at Castle Ellen. Castle Ellen remained in the Lambert family until 1921 when Captain Walter Peter Lambert offered house and remaining 600 acres for sale, the original contents being auctioned around the same time.






Like her cousin Edward Carson, Nannie Power O’Donoghue knew Castle Ellen well, having spent childhood holidays there. In 1869 at the age of 26 she married William Power O’Donoghue, composer and professor at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin: he came from a affluent Cork mercantile family. The couple’s financial circumstances suffered a setback in 1885 when the Munster Bank, in which their money was invested, failed. However, even before then Power O’Donoghue had begun earning money through her writing: she published her first novel the year before her marriage. She soon became a prolific author, beginning in 1881 with a series of articles in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News on riding techniques for women. These were so successful that they were published in book form as Ladies on Horseback, followed by a second similar work called Riding for Ladies (1887) which became an international best-seller. In the following decade she started to write for Irish Society (‘guaranteed Largest Circulation in Ireland of any Society paper published in the United Kingdom, and three times that of any Irish weekly journal or periodical’). Here she contributed a weekly column, ‘De Die In Diem. Or, Casual Jottings. By Candid Jane (Mrs Power O’Donoghue)’ covering whatever topic took her fancy. Although Irish Society did not survive Independence – the demand for reportage on Dublin Castle levées and charity bazaars having declined – and her views on the world often remained distinctly Victorian, she continued to write up to the time of her death, aged 96, in 1940. That same year, Castle Ellen was again offered for sale, this time by the Land Commission, which sought to dispose of the property with 66 acres. The new owners put it on the market eleven years later and in 1961 the house was temporarily used as a school. But by then it was already in a poor state of repair and the decline continued remorselessly until 1974 when local man Michael Keaney bought Castle Ellen. Since then he has been single-handedly working to keep the roof intact and ensure the house remains standing. He welcomes visitors (and even offers overnight accommodation in one bedroom) and is a wonderful fount of knowledge about the house and its history. There is, unquestionably, more work to be done but without his gallant intervention Castle Ellen would long ago have joined the list of Ireland’s lost country houses. His pluck merits appreciation and applause.