Feeling Haunted


For those who believe in the supernatural, there’s stiff competition for the title of Ireland’s Most Haunted House. But one property which often appears to lead the field is Leap Castle, County Offaly. Superbly located on a rocky outcrop and with views across to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, in its present form the core of the castle is a late medieval tower house but likely built on the site, and perhaps incorporating elements of an earlier fortified structure. The name Leap (pronounced, incidentally, ‘Lepp’), derives from the Irish Léim Uí Bhánáin meaning Leap of the O’Bannons, the latter being a minor sept in this part of the country which for many centuries was dominated by another family, the O’Carrolls, ancient rulers of the kingdom of Éile. Leap Castle became one of their principal strongholds, although their authority was greatly weakened over the course of the 16th century by internecine feuding. To give a flavour of what took place during this period: in 1541 the castle’s then occupant Fearganhainm O’Carroll was murdered by the O’Mulloys, and was succeeded by one of his sons Teige ‘the one-eyed.’ It has been claimed that Teige murdered one of his own brothers, a priest, while the latter was performing the rite of mass in the chapel at the top of the castle. In any case, Teige in due course met a sticky end when he was killed by another of his kinsmen, Cahir O’Carroll who was in turn killed by Teige’s younger brother William. Inevitably William was then murdered by one of his relations, and his son John was killed the following year by one of his cousins, Mulroney, a son of the late Teige. It will come as no surprise to learn that Mulroney was then slain by John’s brother Charles, who would eventually also meet a bloody end: no wonder the place is often thought to be haunted. Somehow, despite this extraordinary roll call of murder and mayhem, the O’Carrolls managed to hold onto Leap Castle and its surrounding lands until the mid-17th century when they were finally displaced by another family. 





The first of a long line of men bearing the same name to live there, Jonathan Darby is thought to have been granted Leap Castle in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, as a reward for his military services. Although he briefly lost the property back to the O’Carrolls in the aftermath of the 1660 Restoration, Darby and his descendants would remain in residence at Leap until the early 1920s, one Jonathan succeeding the next. In the first half of the 18th century, the building was expanded by the addition of wings on either side of the tower house, and the interiors remodelled in the Gothick style, inspired by Batty Langley’s Ancient Architecture Restored and Improved (1742). Alas, these would all be lost when the castle was gutted by fire in 1922. Typical of the time, the family’s younger sons had to find alternative careers and in two instances, despite the estate being as far inland as is possible in Ireland, they became distinguished admirals in the Royal Navy, George Darby commanding the Channel Fleet during the American War of Independence, and then relieving Gibraltar during the Spanish siege of 1781, and in the next generation Henry d’Esterre Darby being an important naval figure during the Napoleonic Wars. But perhaps the most interesting character produced by the family was John Nelson Darby, his middle name given to acknowledge his godfather and family friend, Horatio Nelson. Typical of many younger sons, John Nelson became an Anglican clergyman renowned as a young curate serving in Delgany, County Wicklow for his fervent, and often successful, evangelising of Roman Catholics in the area. However, he parted ways with the Church of Ireland, ostensibly because of an insistence by the Archbishop of Dublin that converts must swear an oath of loyalty to the English crown, but more likely because it was insufficiently evangelical for his tastes. He then became one of the founders of a new Christian movement which was established in Dublin in the late 1820s: the Plymouth Brethren, its name derived from the first meeting of the group in England which took place in the Devon town (a subset, otherwise known as the Exclusive Brethren, were also called Darbyites). Many visitors to and natives of Dublin will be familiar with the Davenport Hotel close to Merrion Square: this building dates from the 1860s when built as a gospel hall for the Plymouth Brethren. The largest such hall ever constructed, it could hold 3,500 persons seated, or 5,000 standing. The Merrion Hall remained in use for its original purpose until the 1980s when sold, and following a fire which gutted the interior, today only the facade is original. One suspects there is little awareness now of how strong was the Christian evangelistic movement in mid-19th century Ireland, not least among the country’s landed gentry: a number of notable families in County Kerry, for example, became members of the Plymouth Brethren during this period. It is an area ripe for further investigation. 





Returning to Leap Castle, this remained in possession of the Darbys until July 1922 when destroyed during the Civil War. The last of the family to live there, yet another Jonathan, was married to Mildred Dill who had a particular interest in the supernatural and held séances in the house, which helps to explain why it has been associated with hauntings. Writing in the Occult Review in 1909, she described an incident in Leap Castle: ‘I was standing in the Gallery looking down at the main floor, when I felt somebody put a hand on my shoulder. The thing was about the size of a sheep. Thin, gaunt, shadowy. its face was human, to be more accurate, inhuman. Its lust in its eyes, which seemed half decomposed in black cavities, stared into mine. The horrible smell one hundred times intensified came up into my face, giving me a deadly nausea. It was the smell of a decomposing corpse.’ All of which helps to explain why the building has long been associated with hauntings. Meanwhile her husband Jonathan Darby appears to have been a testy man, given to outbursts of temper. Inheriting the estate while still in his teens, he also inherited much debt at a time when the Land Wars were getting underway and tenants resisting efforts to increase the rents they were obliged to pay. Nevertheless, determined to improve his financial circumstances, Darby raised rents by up to 30 per cent. Furthermore, unlike many other landowners, he declined the opportunity to sell the greater part of his estate under the generous terms of the 1903 Wyndham Act. The consequence was that he was not popular in the area, and that Leap Castle was ripe for attack once the War of Independence and then the Civil War saw a widespread breakdown of law and order. In late July 1922 the Darbys were out of the country, and the castle was occupied only by a caretaker, his wife and child. In the early hours of July 30th, the building was set on fire by a party of 11 men,  who in the usual fashion, poured petrol over the floors and furniture and then set it alight. As a consequence the castle’s north wing was completely gutted, but the main part of the property remained intact. Looting took place during the day and then, in the early hours of July 31st, the rest of the building was set alight and destroyed. Darby duly applied for compensation for the loss of his property, suing the county council on the grounds that local residents were responsible for destroying his home and that the relevant military authorities had made no effort to intervene and save the castle. He sought £35,000 but, as was almost invariably the case, received only a fraction of this sum, £7,000. Furthermore, the land he had hitherto refused to sell was now compulsorily purchased by the Land Commission and distributed among tenants. By the mid-1930s he no longer owned any part of the Leap estate, and the castle stood a ruined shell. That is how I remember first seeing it almost 40 years ago, not long after the building had been bought by an Australian, Peter Bartlett whose mother had been a Bannon and who therefore felt an affinity with the place. In the years before his death in 1989, he carried out initial restoration work on the site but a lot remained – and remains to be done. In 1991 Leap Castle was bought by traditional musician Seán Ryan who has lived there with his wife and daughter ever since, untroubled by having to share the spot with multiple ghosts. More structural work has been undertaken but, as can be seen, large parts of the building, not least the north wing, remain shells. Whatever about being haunted, Leap Castle is certainly a most haunting place.

High Victoriana


Based in County Sligo, the O’Haras are an ancient Irish family, their surname an anglicisation of the original Ó hEaghra, descendants of Eaghra Poprigh mac Saorghus who died in 926. The family’s ancestry is attested by the Book of O’Hara (Leabhar Í Eadhra), a volume of bardic poetry written on vellum for Cormac O’Hara in 1597 and acquired by the National Library of Ireland almost 20 years ago. It might therefore have been expected that during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, when so many other similar Gaelic families lost everything, the O’Haras would suffer the same fate. However, in this instance, by adapting themselves to changing circumstances, they survived and continue to live in the same area as did their forebears hundreds of years earlier. When Cormac’s son Tadgh O’Hara died in 1616, he left two infant boys, the elder another Tadgh, the younger Kean, who were raised as members of the Established Church by the Court of Wards. In consequence, despite some confiscations, they managed to hold onto more of their ancestral lands than was customarily the case, and although never rich (and frequently in debt) they survived. Their circumstances were helped, as often occurred, through judicious marriages which brought into the family property in northern England and also in Dublin: included in the latter was a site on Essex Street where the original Custom House once stood and another on Wellington Quay today occupied by the Clarence Hotel. 





Tadgh O’Hara the younger died unmarried in 1634 and so the estates passed to his brother Kean whose two elder sons also dying without direct heirs in turn the O’Hara lands passed to another Kean. Of the next generation, the elder son Charles sat for some time in the Irish House of Commons but is best remembered now as the close correspondent and almost father-figure to Edmund Burke. Meanwhile his younger brother Kane O’Hara became well-known as a playwright and composer who in 1757 co-founded the Musical Academy in Dublin with the Earl of Mornington (again a talented composer and father of the future first Duke of Wellington). Five years later, he scored a success on stage with Midas, the first-known burletta (a kind of parody of opera seria) to be performed in English. After being performed in Dublin’s Crow Street Theatre, it reached Covent Garden in London in 1764 and was succeeded by a number of other burlesques written by O’Hara. In 1774 he opened Mr. Punch’s Patagonian Theatre on Dublin’s Abbey Street. This was a theatre which staged puppet versions of operas and burlesques and later also transferred to London. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who would later sing in operas by Mozart, Gluck and Paisiello, performed in O’Hara’s premises while a young man. Meanwhile his nephew, another Charles O’Hara, duly inherited the family estate in Sligo and, like his father before him, sat in the House of Commons, although described in 1782 as ‘a very dull, tedious speaker.’ He opposed the Act of Union, but then sat in the Westminster parliament representing Sligo until his death, when he was succeeded by his son, Charles King O’Hara who did not stand for election but remained in Ireland where he was prominent in relief efforts during the Great Famine. Dying childless, his estate went to a nephew, Charles William Cooper, with the condition that the latter changed his surname to O’Hara. It is his descendants who have continued to live on the site to the present day. 





The O’Haras were never particularly wealthy, were often heavily indebted and their estates remortgaged: it didn’t help that on several occasions there were legal disputes among them over inheritances (a common phenomenon in late 17th/early 18th century Ireland). In the 1790s, financial circumstances had become so bad that they were facing bankruptcy, and large portions of their property had to be sold to pay some outstanding debts. The family’s base was always close to the town of Collooney, which they sought to improve, not least by establishing a bleach mill there. Likewise they tried to modernise and better the land they owned a few miles to the south-west of Collooney. The house there is now called Annaghmore but for a long time named Nymphfield (or Nymphsfield). A succession of buildings seems to have occupied the site, the first one, which may have been a tower house or fortified manor, thought to have been demolished in the 1680s. Its replacement, on which much money was lavished in 1718, lasted until the start of the 19th century, perhaps around 1822 when Charles King O’Hara inherited the estate. Surviving images of this building show it to have been of two storeys with single storey wings on either side, very typical of the Regency villa. In the early 1860s Charles William O’Hara, having inherited the estate and changed his surname according to the terms of his uncle’s will, embarked on a substantial enlargement of the house, by now called Annaghmore, its design attributed to the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller. It is this house, a full expression of high-Victorian taste, which can be seen today, all fronted in crisp limestone ashlar. The facade was graced with an Ionic portico, a second storey added to the wings and the building extended to the rear, although part of this was demolished in the last century. Largely unaltered over the past 150 years, the interiors are wonderfully florid, reflecting the bold confidence of this period, post-Famine and pre-Land Wars, when estate owners embarked on a flurry of building work. Long may it remain as a celebration of that era. 

Vast and Magnificently Furnished


According to Burke’s guide to Irish Landed Gentry published in 1899, the Gerrards of Gibbstown, County Meath were ‘a branch of the family to which belonged Sir Gilbert Gerrard, 1st bart., of Fiskerton, co. Lincoln (a descendant of the Gerrards of Ince). During the English Civil War, Sir Gilbert had been an ardent royalist, which may explain why the Gerrards wished to claim association with him. In fact, they were an old Anglo-Norman family who for centuries had been based not far from Gibbstown at the now-ruined Clongill Castle. Gibbtown, meanwhile, belonged to a branch of the Plunket family, who built a tower house here. At some date in the second half of the 17th century, after the lands had been confiscated from the Plunkets, they were acquired by Thomas Gerrard, who died at Gibbstown in 1719, leaving it to his eldest son John. His two other sons were Thomas, who was left Liscarton (see Liscarton « The Irish Aesthete) and Samuel who lived at Clongill from where he corresponded with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Meanwhile, the main branch remained at Gibbstown, while also spending time at another County Meath property, Boyne Hill. When travelling through Ireland in 1776, Arthur Young visited Gibbstown and met its owner, another Thomas Gerrard with whose farming methods he was much impressed (‘he has made many covered drains with stones, the effect of which is great; and he has his fields fenced in the most perfect manner by deep ditches, high banks and well planted hedges’). At the time the estate ran to 1,200 acres bringing in annual rent of £1,300. Following the second Thomas’ death in 1784, Gibbstown was inherited by his only son John Gerrard, who married a County Galway heiress but the couple had no children, so in 1865 the estate passed to a nephew, once more called Thomas. He likewise had no children, and so following his death in 1913 the place was inherited by a nephew, Major Thomas Gerrard Collins, who two years later assumed the additional surname of Gerrard. He would be the last of the family to live here as by 1927 the Land Commission had moved in and the Gibbstown estate was broken up. The following decade it became a Gaeltacht area (now called Baile Ghib) in which Irish speakers from Donegal, Mayo and Kerry were settled on small holdings of 22 acres each. 






Until 1865 the Gerrard family at Gibbstown had occupied what appears to have been a long, two-storey 18th century dwelling attached to the late-medieval tower house. However, when Thomas Gerrard inherited the estate from his uncle, despite being a bachelor he decided to embark on constructing a new residence for himself elsewhere on the estate. This was no modest building but a vast Italianate palazzo designed in the early 1770s by William Henry Lynn. Of three storeys and seven bays, faced with cut limestone and entered beneath a Doric portico, the house also featured a long colonnade which led to a free-standing campanile; it was commonly believed that the cost of building and fitting out the new Gibbstown had run to £250,000. A description of the property in the Irish Times in 1912 noted that the centre of the house was dominated by a hall rising some 80 feet and topped by a stained glass dome, with galleries running around the upper floors off which opened the main bedrooms, each of which were ‘vast and magnificently furnished, the adjacent dressing rooms also being large beyond custom, and each set of rooms was furnished with a different suite of furniture, which formed an interesting study in itself…A circular marble corridor formed an imposing feature of the building, and on the first floor were two great sitting rooms, a long and magnificent drawing room, and a dining room; where the roof and tapestried walls harmonised well with the richness of the furniture.’ Alas, Mr Gerrard and his nephew did not enjoy these surroundings for very long before much of them were destroyed: in April 1912 fire broke out in Gibbstown, largely gutting the two upper floors and destroying the aforementioned stained glass dome in the central hall. Fortunately many of the contents were rescued, including a large collection of Chinese porcelain including some pieces, according to the Irish Times, which had come from Paris’s Tuileries Palace, destroyed in 1871. In May 1913 Thomas Gerrard died at the age of 78, by which time Major Thomas Collins Gerrard had already embarked on a restoration of the house, the architect this time being the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller. But as already noted above, change was in the air and Gibbstown would not be occupied for much longer. In June 1930, Battersby & Co began auctioning the house’s contents, so substantial that it took a fortnight to dispose of them all. Among the best-sellers was a Chinese Chippendale table that made 110 guineas, a satinwood reading table that went for 30 guineas, a carved Italian marble chimneypiece (33 guineas) and an ormolu and bronze clock surmounted by a figure representing Alexander the Great (22 guineas). So it went on, day after day until everything was gone. Five years later Major Gerrard presented the Royal Dublin Society with a bronze vase four feet, eight inches high on a two-foot high pedestal by Major Gerrard. The vase features the figures of Day and Night after Thorvaldsen from plaques exhibited at the Great Industrial Exhibition held in Dublin in 1853: now painted blue and white and beside a plaque announcing that it had been given on permanent loan by ‘the last Gerrard of Gibbstown’ it can still be seen outside the RDS’s premises. 






Major Gerrard died in 1945, but even before then the great Italianate house, built barely 70 years earlier, and rebuilt after the fire just over 30 years before, stood an empty anachronism. In this instance however, unlike many other such buildings, it was not demolished but instead taken down, with the stones carefully numbered before being brought to the Cistercian monks at Mellifont, outside Collon, County Louth; the intention was that they would be used in the erection of a new church. However, that never happened and instead, over a period of time, the stonework was sold off piecemeal and used in various other properties around the area. Meanwhile, a wrought-iron aviary from Gibbstown ended up being used in an arcade in Drogheda, County Louth. So, the late 19th century house has gone, but its predecessor remains – just about. It will be remembered that before Thomas Gerrard embarked on his grandiose scheme, the family had lived in an older building, an extension to the late-medieval Plunket tower house. This structure was incorporated into an immense series of 18th and 19th century yards, including stables, coach houses, animal sheds, staff accommodation and much more. These are in turn linked to very substantial walled gardens, the whole offering testimony to the high standards of farming here noted by Arthur Young back in the 1770s. Internally the house consists of a series of rooms often opening one into the next or connected by long, narrow corridors, suggesting the building is relatively early in date and may even have originated in the 17th century. And a couple of the rooms retain at least some of their charming rococo plasterwork. How much they continue to do so is open to question, since in recent years the site has been used as an urban assault airsoft venue (in which participants attempt to eliminate each other using replica weapons). Good clean fun, no doubt, but not necessarily beneficial for the buildings. It will probably be only a matter of time before the surviving remnants of the Gibbstown estate disappear for good.

A Decent Man


It is understandable that obituaries in recent days of Paddy Rossmore should have concentrated on one moment in his life: a short engagement to Marianne Faithfull. Understandable, but regrettable because Paddy was a man who rather shunned publicity and, away from any limelight, engaged in many other noble enterprises. And it is for these that he deserves to be remembered, rather than a brief brush with celebrity. But to explain: while staying with his old friend Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin at Glin Castle, County Limerick Paddy met both Marianne Faithfull and her on/off boyfriend Mick Jagger. Within weeks she had left Jagger and become engaged to Paddy but within months the relationship, which seems to have given greater pleasure to tabloid readers than anyone else, had come to end. In the years I knew him, Paddy only ever referred in passing to the liaison. 





I first met Paddy Rossmore 15 or so years ago with his dear friends Sally Phipps and Virginina Brownlow, Molly Keane’s two daughters. Paddy was, as always, rather diffident but I was familiar with the many photographs he had taken during the 1960s of Ireland’s architectural heritage, and soon proposed that some of these ought to be gathered together and published as a book. Paddy’s career as a photographer had been entirely accidental, begun almost on a whim in 1962. In order to acquire the basic necessary skills, he went to work for a fashion photographer, although he didn’t intend to enter that particular field:  ‘being shy I was never good at photographing people, where you need the ability – which I have always lacked – of being able to do two different things at the same time, keeping people relaxed with talk while attending to camera settings.’ Nevertheless, Paddy’s abilities were quickly noticed by Desmond FitzGerald, who invited him to come on a trip to the west of Ireland and take pictures there of old buildings. ‘Architecture wasn’t at all my subject,’ he explained to me. ‘I just photographed what I was told.’ Other expeditions with Desmond soon followed, often in the company of Mariga Guinness. Paddy later remembered how on many occasions, ‘we would go up these drives and then, if the house wasn’t right, we’d turn around and drive away and the Knight would shriek, “Failure house, failure”!’ Because Desmond FitzGerald and Mariga Guinness decided the itinerary, ‘usually we were searching for buildings displaying the influence of Palladio, an activity which on a few occasions seemed to me to be a little obsessive when so many beautiful rivers (I’m a fisherman) and views of mountain scenery were bypassed. I got rather tired of going around all these houses – so they called me “Crossmore”’ Nevertheless, the experience of visiting historic properties, and having to capture them on film, provided Paddy with invaluable training. In addition, when it came to old buildings, he had two advantages: a naturally sensitive eye, and familiarity with the subject since childhood By the mid-1960s, his abilities as a photographer of buildings had become well-known and he was invited to record them for organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society, as well as for various architectural historians, and for publications like Country Life. But after less than a decade, he stopped taking pictures and in 1980 passed his substantial collection of prints and negatives into the care of the Irish Architectural Archive, which is where I had come to know and admire them. I must confess that the proposed book took longer to produce than really ought to have been the case, as various other projects distracted me from the task. However, I was determined that a new generation should have the opportunity to appreciate Paddy’s pioneering work in the area of Irish architectural photography and finally in October 2019 Paddy Rossmore: Photographs appeared and his work could once more be appreciated





Born in February 1931, William Warner Westenra, always known as Paddy, was the son of the sixth Baron Rossmore whose Dutch forbears moved to Ireland in the early 1660s and settled in Dublin. The family eventually came to own a substantial estate in County Monaghan where, in 1827 the second Lord Rossmore commissioned from architect William Vitruvius Morrison a large neo-Tudor house called Rossmore Castle: in 1858 the building was further extended in the Scottish baronial style by William Henry Lynn. It is said that a competition between the Rossmores and the Shirleys of Lough Fea elsewhere in County Monaghan over which family owned the larger drawing room meant the one in Rossmore Castle was enlarged five times. Famously the building ended up with three substantial towers and 117 windows in 53 different shapes and sizes. However, by the time Paddy was a child, Rossmore Castle was already suffering from rampant dry rot (mushroom spores were found sprouting on the ceiling of the aforementioned drawing room). In 1946 the family moved to Camla Vale, a smaller house on the estate, and the remaining contents of Rossmore Castle were offered for sale: the building was eventually demolished in 1974. Following the sale of Camla Vale, Paddy settled into a former gamekeeper’s lodge on what remained of the estate, until it was burnt out by the IRA in 1981. It was typical of Paddy that he never complained of this misfortune, nor sought to draw attention to his many charitable acts, not the least of which was the establishment in 1973 of the Coolmine Therapeutic Community at Blanchardstown on the outskirts of Dublin. The project incorporated an entirely new non-medical therapeutic approach for people who were drug dependent and has since helped many thousands of addicts. Paddy was self-effacing (for example, he resolutely declined to give any press interviews when his book of photographs was published) and deeply unmaterialistic. Last year he donated Sliabh Beagh, the main remaining portion of the Rossmore family landholding of 2,300 acres that straddles Counties Monaghan and Tyrone, to the charity An Taisce so that it might be preserved for posterity as a public amenity. In addition, many of the family portraits and other items he inherited have long been on loan to Castletown, County Kildare, Paddy – until he moved a couple of years ago into sheltered housing – living in a modest flat in London where I would visit him for tea. An exceptionally and thoroughly decent man, he deserves to be remembered as such, and his quiet selfless work across many fields celebrated. It was a privilege to have known him. 

William Warner Westenra, 7th Baron Rossmore of Monaghan, February 14th 1931-May 4th 2021

Haunted Houses

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses.  Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors. 

We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.



There are more guests at table, than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.



We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates. 

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapors dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.



Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star,
An undiscovered planet in our sky.



And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,– 

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.


Haunted Houses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Photographs of Celbridge Lodge, County Kildare which recently changed ownership

An Invaluable Record


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of a book that might be said to have initiated modern interest in the Irish country house. Of course, there had been other publications on the subject before, not least the fifth volume of the original Georgian Societies records of 1913, and Sadleir and Dickinson’s Georgian Mansions in Ireland, produced two years later (see Glimpses into a Vanished World « The Irish Aesthete and Enriched with Treasures « The Irish Aesthete). And in the interim, other writers like Mark Girouard and the Knight of Glin had visited various houses around the country, the results of these explorations duly appearing in publications such as Country Life. But Irish Houses & Castles was different because it attempted to give an overview of the country’s historic domestic properties, and in doing so allowed the reader to draw conclusions about what made Ireland’s country houses different from those found elsewhere. The book was jointly authored by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan, the former bringing to the work all the experience and knowledge – and indeed social connections – he had gathered since establishing the Irish Georgian Society with his first wife Mariga 13 years earlier. Indeed, one of the purposes of Irish Houses & Castles was to raise funds for the society, which would receive all royalties from sales. Indicative of the appetite for such publications is the fact that the first American edition of 2,000 copies sold out within a month: over the next decade a further 75,000 more copies were published. The funds raised proved invaluable, since at the time the IGS was in the throes of rescuing Castletown, County Kildare. ‘If ever a book saved a house,’ Desmond later remarked, ‘ours saved Castletown, where weekly wages somehow had to be paid, and restoration work continue.’ 

The Drawing Room, Belvedere, County Westmeath

The Drawing Room, Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny

The Saloon, Bellamont Forest, County Cavan 

The Entrance Hall, Abbey Leix, County Laois 

Irish Houses & Castles featured 39 of the most important remaining historic homes in the country, at least a dozen of which have since either been destroyed or else changed hands with the loss of the original contents. In this way, the book is now an historic record but at the time of publication, it provided valuable information on what was a largely unknown subject, not least thanks to the two authors’ introduction which, after discussing the architectural evolution of Irish houses, moved on to examine the paintings and furniture that had been made for them, and even the gardens, gatehouses and follies that ornamented their surrounding estates. As with the books published earlier in the century, an important although often overlooked feature of Irish Houses & Castles is that it offers an insight into how such properties were decorated at the time, frequently in a style quite unlike that today. For example, there is a photograph of the entrance hall at Abbey Leix, County Laois. Today this has been restored to ensure that the eye is immediately caught by its architectural qualities, but 50 years ago the hall still looked much as it probably did in the late Victorian/Edwardian era: acting as an informal meeting space/sitting room it contained chintz-covered sofas on either side of the chimneypiece, an abundance of side tables and bibelots, and a tall folding screen in front of the front door in order to minimise draughts. The writer is old enough to remember many such house entrance halls decorated in the same fashion, but today they have cleared of clutter and tend to be much more sparsely furnished. And of course, many of the original contents of Abbey Leix, accumulated by successive generations, were dispersed when the house was sold in the mid-1990s; again, one remembers that occasion, typical of the time with the marquee outside the house, the surrounding fields filled with cars and the excitement of eventual prices far exceeding estimates (£700 paid for a selection of old copper pans and jelly moulds expected to go for no more than £120). Now the photographs featured in Irish Houses & Castles have become an invaluable source of information about how the place used to look. 

The Drawing Room, Mount Kennedy, County Wicklow

The Ballroom, Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin

The Dining Room, Malahide Castle, County Dublin

The Staircase Hall, Rathbeale, County Dublin

The pictures shown here today, all taken from Irish Houses & Castles, demonstrate how vulnerable these properties remain, and how little protection they still have. The dispersal of Abbey Leix’s original contents in the mid-1990s has already been mentioned. To go through the others, one begins with Belvedere, County Westmeath. Today the house is in the care of the local authority which does an admirable job in maintaining the place. But the contents, which included many items originally from Charleville Castle, County Offaly, were all sold in September 1980. Since it appeared in Irish Houses & Castles, Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny has changed hands on a number of occasions, and the same is also true of Bellamont Forest, County Cavan: in both instances the present owners are American. Meanwhile Malahide Castle: two years after Irish Houses & Castles appeared the 7th Lord Talbot de Malahide died suddenly and the property was inherited by his sister Rose, who offered the castle and its contents to the Irish state in lieu of death duties. The offer was declined and as a result, in 1976 a public auction was held with many important items leaving the country. Ironically, the state – which had bought the castle and surrounding 268 acres – found itself bidding against international dealers and collectors in order to buy some pieces so the building would not be entirely denuded. An expensive and unnecessary act of national folly. Meanwhile elsewhere in County Dublin Rathbeale, which had been restored and furnished by Julian and Carola Peck was subsequently sold, the couple moving to County Derry where they restored another important 18th century house, Prehen; alas, since the deaths of the couple and their surviving son, that house and its contents are likewise at risk (see Hanging On « The Irish Aesthete). Luttrellstown Castle, which had been given by Ernest Guinness to his daughter Aileen on the occasion of her first marriage in 1927 (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). She had extensively refurbished the house in the 1950s, the work overseen by decorator Felix Habord. Once more, it was sold in 1983 and the fabulous contents again dispersed thanks to an auction lasting several days. Finally, and most tragically, one turns to Powerscourt, County Wicklow which, having been acquired from the Wingfields by the Slazenger family was thoroughly restored and then, just as this work was completed, the building was gutted by fire in November 1974, an irreparable loss to the country’s architectural heritage. If for the photographs and account of Powerscourt alone, this is what makes Irish Houses & Castles such an important document.

The Saloon, Powerscourt, County Wicklow
All pictures taken from Irish Houses & Castles by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan 

Alms and the Man


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. 

Re-Engagement



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.


You Go to My Head



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.


Enriched with Treasures



Heywood, County Laois: Gutted by fire 1950, subsequently demolished

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.





Platten Hall, County Meath: demolished c.1950

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.



Turvey, County Dublin: demolished, after many years of neglect, 1987