The entrance gates to the former Rockbrook estate in County Westmeath. Dating from c.1780 the adjacent lodge has a charming concave exterior wall, pedimented and with one arched window set off-centre. The building behind is ruinous, as is the main late 18th century house formerly occupied by the Isdell family.
Last week, a group of graduate scholars and fellows from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) held a meeting in Dublin to propose the establishment of an Irish branch of the organisation. SPAB was founded in England in 1877 by two idealists, the designer and writer William Morris and the architect Philip Webb. They, and other members of their circle, were concerned about what they, often correctly, saw as ill-conceived and over-zealous ‘restoration’ of old buildings, the effect of which was to obliterate much evidence of a property’s cumulative history. This is a situation that has pertained here too, and on occasion continues to do so: for example, a particular moment in a house’s evolution can be selected and anything not relevant to that moment is scrupulously removed. Not only does this have the effect of air-brushing the background, but it often leads to speculative adjustment, to a recreation of what those responsible for the restoration believe would be correct. This is what Morris deemed ‘forgery’, and what he and Webb witnessed happening to buildings across England, especially old churches and cathedrals, and the same ill-advised approach was often adopted here (viz. what happened to both Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals in the 19th century). Repair not Restore is the motto of SPAB.
Here is the most significant, and most often quoted, section of the manifesto written by William Morris in 1877 to define the purpose and ideology of SPAB: ‘It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying. Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.’
There are many merits to the creation of an Irish branch of SPAB, not least the opportunity thus provided to draw on its experience, and the skills of both members and graduates from various programmes run by the organisation. We need more skilled conservators across a range of disciplines, and the training courses run by SPAB are unquestionably of high quality. On the other hand, much of what SPAB does in England is already being done here by a number of existing bodies, and there is the risk of already-scarce resources being further diluted by the entry of another player into the field. Multiplication ought not to lead to duplication. Anyone who attended last week’s inaugural meeting could not fail to be impressed by the ardor and commitment of those who had called it. One of the best features of SPAB is the manner in which it puts ideology into practice, through the organising of various events during which members put their talents to use. Today’s photographs show the kind of property where the intervention of SPAB could make a real difference. The pictures are of a collection of buildings in the yards behind an old house in County Wexford. Various structures have undergone alterations and modifications over time, presumably as their purpose, and the needs of earlier owners, has required. Now they have a special patina that only long and diverse history can convey. Repair not Restore would see these buildings retain that patina, while being given the chance to have a viable future. If SPAB in Ireland can do that here, and in many other places around the country, then its establishment will be of inestimable value to us all.
*Anyone interested in making contact with the advocates of an Irish branch of SPAB, at the moment the best means of making contact appears to be through twitter: @SPABIreland.
What still stands of Duleek House, County Meath. The limestone-fronted façade of the building was added c.1750 to a residence probably half a century older, as can be seen by a side-view below. If not designed by Richard Castle the front section was certainly much influenced by him, and the tripartite doorcase is very similar to that of the last surviving 18th century house on Dublin’s O’Connell Street (no. 42).
The interior featured an entrance hall with three arched openings to the rear providing access to the staircase and reception rooms with neo-classical plasterwork. When surveyed for the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, Duleek House was still intact and occupied. Since then it has deteriorated into the present dangerous condition and appears unlikely to survive much longer. The building is of course listed for protection.
Today leading nowhere, here is the former main entrance to Drewstown, County Meath. The paired ashlar limestone gate piers date from c.1745 and proclaimed the importance of this estate, now sadly diminished (the lodge on the other side of the wall is an overgrown ruin) but thankfully with the important Georgian house at its centre still standing.
Here is a scenario familiar to anyone engaged with or concerned for the welfare of our architectural heritage. At some date in the 18th/19th centuries a house is built on the outskirts of a town, often by a prosperous burgher keen to demonstrate his affluence. Over the intervening decades, the adjacent urban centre gradually expands so that a building once surrounded by open fields is increasingly encircled by housing estates. Eventually these press up against what remains of the former estate, which comes to acquire a besieged appearance. As a result, the owners – perhaps no longer so prosperous or perhaps knowing it is time to realise an asset – sell up. The place is then bought by someone more interested in the commercial value of the land on which the house sits than in the historic property. Accordingly, despite being listed for preservation the building is not maintained, begins to decay, is subject to vandalism, possibly even an arson attack, and falls into total dereliction. At which point the relevant authorities will relist the property as dangerous and require its demolition. The land will be cleared, a new housing estate built and the original property perhaps only recalled in the name this development is given: a fait accompli.
Brandondale, County Kilkenny lies on a site above the river Barrow on the outskirts of Graiguenamanagh. The house dates from c.1800 when it was built by Peter Burtchaell whose family had come to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century. The Burchaells were involved in the linen industry which then thrived in this part of Ireland, and also seem to have acted as agents for the Agars, Lords Clifden, large landowners whose seat was Gowran Castle in the same county. Peter Burchaell married the heiress Catherine Rothe and her fortune duly passed into the family which would have provided the necessary money for building a house like Brandondale. In his Handbook for Ireland (1844) James Fraser wrote that the property, ‘occupying a fine site on the northern acclivities of Brandon hill, commands the town, the prolonged and lovely windings of the Barrow, the picturesque country on either side of its banks, and the whole of the Mount Leinster and Black Stairs range of mountains.’ The architecture of the house was that of a two-storey Regency villa, old photographs showing it distinguished by a covered veranda wrapping around the canted bow at the south-eastern end of the building which had views down to the river. Within this sightline must have been a little gothic tea house now roofless and submerged in woodland; built of limestone rubble, this square structure incorporates granite window and door openings that may be of mediaeval origin (perhaps recycled from the Duiske Abbey in the centre of Graiguenamanagh).
The last of the Burtchaell line to live at Brandondale was Richard, who livd there until his death in 1903. He and his wife Sarah had no children and she remained on the property for the next twenty-nine years, struggling to make ends meet by taking in paying guests. After her death the house and remaining fifty acres were sold to the Belgian Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove who first lived there and then rented the place before he in turn sold it. In the 1980s Brandondale was bought by an Englishman Walter Dominy who moved in with his family and established a printing business. After this failed, in 1993 Mr Dominy left a suicide note in his car while travelling on the Rosslare to Fishguard ferry: fifteen years later an English tabloid newspaper found him living in France. But meanwhile Brandondale changed hands yet again and at some point was subject to a spectacularly poor refurbishment which saw the Regency veranda removed and all the old fenestration replaced with uPVC. In recent years it was taken into receivership and offered for sale on 25 acres for just €150,000, an indication of the building’s atrocious condition (and also of a Compulsory Purchase Order from the local council on part of the land). The place has apparently been sold once more but still sits empty and deteriorating: it can only be a matter of time before Brandondale’s condition is judged so bad that, despite being listed for preservation, demolition is ordered. After which, no doubt, an application will be lodged for houses to be built on the land. A fait accompli.
Below is a Burtchaell tomb in the graveyard surrounding an already-demolished Church of Ireland church in Graiguenamanagh: very likely soon to be the only recollection of Brandondale.
Buried deep in the undergrowth: the remains of Bellanagare Castle, County Roscommon. This was formerly the seat of the O’Conor family including the antiquarian, proponent of ancient Gaelic culture and ardent advocate of Roman Catholic rights Charles O’Conor (1710-1791) who served as the O’Conor Don (that is, a descendant of the ancient line that provided one hundred Kings of Connacht and eleven High Kings of Ireland). Here he lived until the marriage of his son in 1760 after which he moved to a small cottage nearby. What survives suggests this was a late 17th/early 18th century house, of five bays and with a pedimented façade. Given the importance of Charles O’Conor in Irish history, the building’s present state, on the verge of being entirely overwhelmed by undergrowth, is another sad indictment of how this country treats its heritage.
Since the majority of Ireland’s extant country houses date from after 1700, they are inclined to have a rational, linear character, with rooms arranged in sequence off straight corridors. The kind of organic, almost haphazard development found in equivalent properties elsewhere around Europe is largely absent here, even in older buildings where order was often subsequently imposed by their owners. Only occasionally does one come across a house which unashamedly revels in being an amalgam of several centuries and makes no attempt to conceal its heterogeneous heritage. Huntington Castle, County Carlow is one such place.
Huntington is built on the site of a 13th century Franciscan priory. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s the land passed into the hands of Laurence Esmonde, whose family had long been settled in this part of the country. Esmonde was a convert to Anglicanism and served in the armies of first Elizabeth I and then James I, for which services he was raised to the peerage in 1622 as Lord Esmonde. It appears that a few years after receiving this honour he built the core of the present house, now buried within subsequent accretions but still discernible as a three-storey fortified dwelling. The first alterations and additions to that core were made c.1680 by his grandson, Sir Laurence Esmonde and a wing was constructed by the latter’s own grandson (another Sir Laurence) around forty years later. In the 19th century, Huntington passed through marriage to the Durdins (now, again through marriage, the Durdin-Robertsons) and around 1860 a further extension to the rear once more increased the castle’s size.
The interior of Huntington makes no attempt to conceal its centuries-long evolution. The drawing room, for example, has 18th century classical plaster panelled walls beneath a 19th century Perpendicular-Gothic ceiling. Some passages on the ground floor retain their original oak panelling, a number of bedrooms above being panelled in painted pine. The dining room has an immense granite chimneypiece bearing the date 1625, while those in other rooms are clearly from a century later. In keeping with this satisfying chronological mishmash, the interior is replete with short flights of stairs and narrow corridors, each leading to another part of the castle. The passage of centuries has left everything a little off beam, a touch unaligned. There is no overall plan, no impression that anyone ever tried to impose coherence on the building. Instead it was allowed to grow as circumstances dictated and, no doubt, as funds permitted. Huntington has never passed out of the hands of the first Laurence Esmonde’s descendants and one suspects continuity of ownership played a part in ensuring it avoided undergoing radical make-over: a new owner would no doubt have wanted to put his or her stamp on the place. Huntington exults in its idiosyncratic character and by so doing offers a fuller sense of evolving history than would a more rationally designed house. If only there were more like it.