Developments Awaited



The recent run of good weather in Ireland has turned everyone’s attention to gardens (if only to wonder, given a recent hose ban, how to keep them sufficiently watered). There has always been a strong public appetite for visiting gardens, especially those developed over a long period of time. One of the most popular in recent years has been Altamont, County Carlow, which offers the additional allure of free admission. Running to almost 100 acres, Altamont was developed around a house which, as so often in this country, has a complex and at times unclear history.






Originally known as Rose Hill, the present property at Altamont dates from the 18th century, although it has been proposed that the house incorporates an older dwelling, possibly a mediaeval religious establishment. Various dates are given for the core of the building, anything from 1720 to 1770 but during the earlier period a branch of the St George family was in residence and seems to have been responsible for its construction, including the polygonal bay on the east-facing façade. By the later part of the 18th century Altamont was occupied by the Doyles: curiously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s father, a mid-19th century illustrator and watercolourist, was called Charles Altamont Doyle. By that time, the place was owned by Dawson Borror whose father had been a landscape architect: it was he who initiated changes to the demesne and gardens to provide local employment in the aftermath of the Great Famine (not least the creation of the lake). Borror also extended the house, adding a wing on the north side for a library and other rooms, and then making further alterations in the early 1870s. Half a century later, Altamont came into the ownership of Feilding Lecky Watson: first he and then his daughter Corona North were largely responsible for giving the gardens their present appearance.






Following the death of Corona North in 1999 Altamont passed into the care of the Irish State, which through the Office of Public Works has continued to care for the gardens and keep them open to the public. Hitherto the house at the centre of the site remains closed. An article in the Irish Times in December 2007 noted that the building had been rated by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as being of national importance and quoted then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government John Gormley as saying that the house would be ‘a very important tourist attraction in the Carlow area and a wonderful amenity for local families.’ The economic recession began soon afterwards and the building stayed shuttered. It also appears legal complexities delayed the formal handing over of the property to the OPW: this only occurred in January 2014 when then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Brian Hayes announced plans to open Altamont House to the public in the future. The following year a government press release reported that Simon Harris, then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works had visited Altamont where he explained his office ‘has already carried out vital remedial and maintenance works to the house and the entrance road and I am pleased to confirm that design work is at an advanced stage for the new Tearooms for which it is hoped to lodge planning permission very shortly.’ In December 2016 local media advised that work was ‘finally going to start in earnest into developing Altamont House into a place for visitors to the gardens to go.’ In February of last year the Carlow Nationalist reported that then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Seán Canney had visited Altamont and announced the organization was close to submitting planning permission for tea rooms in the building: ‘It’s a hugely ambitious project to renovate the house and it’s going to cost a substantial amount of money.’ Since then necessary repairs have been carried out on the roof. Further developments are awaited and, all being well, before too long the building at the heart of Altamont’s gardens will open its doors to the public.


Luxuriance of Growth


‘In the autumn of 1868 the late Lord Lansdowne, accompanied by his uncle, the Hon. James Howard, paid a visit of ceremony to the various Irish estates to which he had recently succeeded. After inspecting his property in other parts of Ireland, he came in the month of October to Kerry, travelling via Cahirciveen and Killarney to Kenmare, and finally to Derreen…It was not long after this that Lord Lansdowne became engaged to Lady Maud Hamilton, youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. He soon determined to make Derreen his summer residence, and came over in 1870 to superintend the necessary alterations. In the following year he spent several months with his wife in their new home. Thenceforward a visit to Derreen became an annual affair, looked forward to with eager anticipation by all concerned. But from 1883 to 1894 he was abroad, first in Canada and afterwards in India, as Viceroy, and he was only able to snatch a few weeks in Kerry in 1888 during his few months at home between the two appointments. During his absence in India the place was let to the late Duke of Leeds, for whom as a gardener, a keen fisherman, and a good shot, it held a strong appeal. Meanwhile the new line from Headford to Kenmare had been completed and the drive of forty miles over the mountains from Killarney was shortened to one of seventeen miles on the flat, while the train service had been improved; after 1895 more frequent visits thus became possible.’






‘Derreen had by this time greatly changed from what it was when [historian James Anthony] Froude spent his “Fortnight in Kerry.” The clearing and planting, which had been systematically carried on for twenty-five years, had borne fruit. The scrub of hollies and brambles with which the ground had been for the most part covered had given place to green lawns and winding paths through groves of bamboos, tree-ferns and shrubs of all kinds. The peat bank, from which McSweeny used to draw his household turf, had become a bog garden, and the existence of the numerous small inclosures which constituted the former farm was only betrayed here and there by traces of a bank or ditch amidst the sub-tropical vegetation. Indeed the principal gardening difficulty in Kerry is the rapidity and luxuriance of growth. Shrubs, which in England would take years to make a show, here under the influence of the Gulf Stream soon develop into trees, and many are to be sacrificed if the rest are to have room. When my father first came over, he put in about a hundred plants of hybrid “arboretum” rhododendrons. They grew to such a size that it became apparent they would exclude all light and air from the narrow paths. One by one, they have almost all had to go; of those remaining there are today one or two specimens quite fifty feet in height.’






‘The year 1903 was made memorable at Derreen by a visit from King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Their Majesties made in that summer a tour of Ireland, partly in the Royal Yacht and partly overland. The original intention had been that they should come to Derreen by water from County Clare, but weather conditions made this inadvisable, and the journey was eventually made by motor-car. They arrived on the afternoon of July 31. A Union Jack had been floated on the top of Knockatee and a triumphal arch was erected outside the Derryconnery Gate, where an address of welcome was presented by the assembled tenantry. On the lawn in front of the house the children of Lauragh school had been marshalled and they presented a bouquet to the Queen. Then there was a walk around the gardens where two commemorative bamboos were duly planted in the glade now called “the King’s Oozy”. After tea in the new dining room, which had been added to the house that year, the party went down to the pier, where Queen Alexandra was initiated into the mysteries of prawn fishing. The ground had been lavishly baited in advance and the fishing was such a success, that in spite of the obvious impatience of His Majesty, she could scarcely be persuaded to relinquish her net when the hour came for departure.’


Extracts from Glanerought and the Petty-FitzMaurices by the sixth Marquis of Lansdowne (1937).
To visit Derreen, County Kerry, see: http://www.derreengarden.com

Well Red


It is now half a century since Castletown, County Kildare opened to the public. Constructed during the 1720s as one of our earliest and still greatest extant country houses, the building might have been lost had it not been for the plucky vision of the Hon Desmond Guinness in purchasing Castletown, and then the sterling work of the Irish Georgian Society in undertaking restoration work so that it could welcome visitors. Since 1994 Castletown has been in state ownership and the Office of Public Works, together with the Castletown Foundation, supports an ongoing programme of further improvements to house and contents.



One of the latest projects undertaken inside Castletown has been the conservation of the Red Drawing Room, part of an enfilade on the northside of the ground floor. The design of this space dates from the second half of the 1760s when much work was being undertaken in the house by Tom and Lady Louisa Conolly but the walls were hung in crimson hand-woven damask probably in the late 1860s/early 1870s. An early decision was made not to replace this much-weathered material but to preserve it in situ, carrying out necessary repairs while leaving evidence of age and wear-and-tear. This work is now complete and the room returned to inspection by visitors who will be able to admire a rehang of pictures and other additions to the decorative scheme, not least new curtains of damask woven to match that on the walls. An essay on the Red Drawing Room’s conservation by Christopher Moore is included in Volume XX of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal which has just been published.

Awaiting Salvation


No site looks its best in torrential rain, but under these circumstances there is something especially melancholic about Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow. Over the past couple of decades, the historic gardens here have undergone a wonderful and welcome rebirth, but the house which has formed the centrepiece of the estate for over three centuries now stands a roofless shell. It is located on the site of an early Christian settlement, based around a hermitage established by St Mochorog, said to be an Englishman of royal birth who came to Ireland at the start of the 7th century. A monastic community remained here until Henry VIII’s dissolution of all such religious establishments, but some of the building’s foundations have been found under parts of the present garden at Kilmacurragh. Ownership of the lands were then disputed between the local Byrne family and various settlers. However, in 1697 Thomas Acton secured a lease on the property from the Parsons family, then as now based in Birr, County Offaly (where their gardens are likewise renowned). The original Thomas Acton – grandfather of the one already mentioned – is believed to have come to Ireland in the mid-17th century with the Commonwealth army, and like so many other of its members to have stayed because rewarded for his service with property here. In 1716 the younger Thomas Acton obtained from the then-Viscount Rosse ‘leases for lives renewable forever’ at Kilmacurragh; twenty years later his son William Acton married the Viscount’s cousin, Jane Parsons. Thereafter successive generations of Actons would live at Kilmacurragh and develop its gardens until the opening decades of the last century.





Almost from the moment of arrival at Kilmacurragh, the Actons seem to have been particularly interested in the improvement of their demesne. Presumably around the same period that he built the present house at the close of the 17th century, Thomas also laid out a formal Dutch-style park, with canals and formal avenues. He also created a forty-acre Deer Park. In turn his son William Acton laid out a two-mile beech avenue to celebrate his marriage to Jane Parsons in 1736. Fourteen years later she received a premium of £10 from the Dublin Society (founded less than two decades before) for the planting of ‘foreign trees’ and accordingly large numbers of these were given a place on the estate. In 1780 her son, another Thomas Acton, married Sidney Davis who would in turn receive grants from the same society for growing small plantations, using the money to acquire further rare species. Lt. Col. William Acton inherited the estate in 1817 and he undertook further work, both in the demesne and on the house. With regard to the former, he is believed to have built the walled garden with an orangery and ranges of glasshouses, as well as providing employment during the Great Famine by the restoration of the ha-ha that surrounded the old deer park. He also further added to the planting at Kilmacurragh, buying trees from a nursery established nearby at Dunganstown in 1780. When he died in 1854, the estate was inherited by his eldest son, once more Thomas, who did most to give the gardens their present appearance, not least by sweeping away the formal layout created by his forebears more than a century and a half earlier. Thomas Acton and his sister Janet worked closely with David Moore, then curator of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, and with his son and successor in the position, Sir Frederick Moore. It has been noted that Kilmacurragh during this period became an unofficial outpost for the Botanic Gardens, thanks to its climate and soil but also to its sympathetic owner who with his like-minded sibling travelled the world in search of plants to bring home to County Wicklow.





The fourth Thomas Acton never married and when he died in 1908 Kilmacurragh was inherited by his nephew Captain Charles Annesley Acton, another bachelor. He had little time to take care of the place since on the outbreak of the First World War he signed up for service and was killed in September 1915 while assisting another wounded soldier. Kilmacurragh duly passed to his only brother Major Reginald Thomas Annesley Ball-Acton who in turn was killed just eight months later at Ypres: his heir was a two-year old boy Charles (later a well-known music critic for The Irish Times). During his youth the house stood empty and the grounds lay neglected, but in 1932 the place was taken over by a German, Charles Budina, who successfully ran an hotel there. Unfortunately, following Charles Acton’s sale of Kilmacurragh in 1944 a legal dispute seems to have arisen over possession of the property which was eventually acquired by the Land Commission thirty years later. More recently the gardens have come under the care of the National Botanic Gardens, an ideal association given the long links between the two sites. Since then much wonderful work has been undertaken in the grounds to bring them back to peak condition. However the house, which suffered the consequences of two fires in 1978 and 1982, has fallen into a ruinous state. Much has been written about the building of Kilmacurragh, traditionally dated to 1697 when Thomas Acton first took a lease on the land here. However, a few years ago in the Irish Arts Review Peter Pearson, who had examined relevant family papers including Thomas Acton’s account book, proposed that the house was constructed about a decade later. Nevertheless it would still have been one of the first unfortified residences in this part of the country and it appears likely that William Robinson, the Surveyor General (who was paid £1.1.3d by Thomas Acton in 1704 for unspecified work) had a hand in its design. Stylistically Kilmacurragh is suggestive of Robinson’s work, not least a handsome doorcase that once provided access to the building which was originally of five bays and two storeys (with an attic window in the pedimented breakfront). Photographs of the interior when still intact show it to have been extensively panelled, with a staircase featuring barley-sugar balusters not unlike those found in the Red House, Youghal, County Cork and other contemporaneous houses. The wings on either side of the main block were added in the 1840s by Lt Col. William Acton. Alas, nothing of his work on the house, nor that of his predecessors, remains. Today only the outer walls survive to look especially dispiriting in the rain…

Well Hung


The slate-hung exterior of Drishane, County Cork. Facing due south out to sea (hence the protective slates), the house was built c.1780 for Thomas Somerville and has remained home to successive generations of the same family – including author Edith Somerville – ever since. Drishane will feature in the latest series of Lords & Ladles (in which the Irish Aesthete intermittently has a walk-on – or rather sit down – role) beginning on RTE One television this Sunday, June 10th.

The End of the Line

The Irish Yew Walk at Hillsborough Castle, County Down has a south-facing vista that concludes in Lady Alice’s Temple. The walk was laid out in the late 1870s by Colonel Arthur Hill who was then living in the house, although it belonged to his nephew, the sixth Marquess of Downshire. Col. Hill is also believed to have erected the temple on the site of a former summer house in honour of his sister Lady Alice Hill who had married Thomas Taylour, Earl of Bective in 1867. The ten Ionic columns supporting a masonry entablature & copper-clad masonry dome are made of cast-iron.

The Glory of the House


In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Samuel Lewis wrote that the ‘noble mansion’ at Newbridge, County Dublin was said to hold ‘several valuable paintings by the old masters, which were collected on the continent by the Rev M. Pilkington, author of the Dictionary of Painters, who was vicar of this parish; the drawing room contains several of the paintings described by him.’ The cleric mentioned here was Matthew Pilkington, born in King’s County (now Offaly) in 1701 and ordained a deacon in the Church of Ireland twenty-two years later. His was likely not a very profound vocation, but a position in the established church offered career advantages of which he intended to take advantage. Initially all went well. In 1725 he married the well-connected Laetitia van Lewen, as diminutive – but also as witty – as her husband, and the couple became friends with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Patrick Delany. Through the former Pilkington secured the position of Chaplain to the London Mayor of London and so moved to the other side of the Irish Sea. However in London he antagonized potential supporters and was imprisoned two years later. On returning to Dublin, he then became estranged from his wife and the couple was eventually and scandalously divorced in 1737: just over a decade later Laetitia Pilkington published her entertaining memoirs, from which her former husband emerges in a poor light. Ultimately he recovered his social position thanks to the patronage of Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin who offered Pilkington the living of Donabate and Portraine next to Cobbe’s newly completed seat at Newbridge. As mentioned by Lewis, it is believed that Pilkington travelled to mainland Europe to buy paintings for the house and that this in turn would have informed the work by which he is remembered: The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters, the first such book published in English. It appeared in 1770, four years before the author’s death.




The greater part of Newbridge was built between 1747 and 1752 to the designs of Scottish-born architect James Gibbs, his only known work in Ireland. The following decade a large drawing room was added to the rear of the house. In 1755 Archbishop Cobbe’s son and heir Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Beresford, youngest daughter of the first Earl of Tyrone, and sister of the first Marquess of Waterford, and space was needed for the young couple and the art collection being assembled for the family by Matthew Pilkington. The architect on this occasion was a local man, George Semple who had already overseen the erection of Newbridge. Semple initially proposed adding a pair of wings to the south-facing façade but in the end the decision was taken to construct a single large drawing room/picture gallery to the rear of the house, taking the space previously occupied by a pair of small offices. As has been noted by Julius Bryant, to preserve homogeneity of style within the building Semple used Gibbs’ 1728 Book of Architecture as a source for the design of doorcases and chimney pieces, the former immediately apparent at the entrance to the room from the adjacent antechamber. Running some 45 feet in length, the space has a ceiling featuring ‘a sea of scrolling leaves and floral garlands encircled by dragons and birds fighting over baskets of fruit.’ This work is believed to have been undertaken by stuccodore Richard Williams, a pupil of Robert West: the Newbridge accounts for this period include seven payments to ‘Williams ye stucco man.’




A drawing of the Newbridge drawing room dated c.1840 and attributed to Frances Cobbe shows the room as it looked following a refurbishment of the space two decades earlier. In 1821 payments for furniture were made to Woods & Son, and to Mack, Williams & Gibton of Dublin, who were also paid for curtains in 1828. The carpet, by Beck & Co. of Bath was supplied in March 1823 for £64 and 18 shillings, while the crimson flock wallpaper and matching border came from the Dublin firm of Patrick Boylan. The present arrangement of paintings, the greater part of them collected during the previous century by Archbishop Cobbe and his son and daughter-in-law, dates from the same period. Towards the end of the 19th century, Frances Cobbe called the drawing room ‘the glory of the house. In it the happiest hours of my life were passed.’ She remembered the room as assembled by her parents. Some of the collection had been sold in Dublin in 1812, and in 1839 two key paintings, by Hobbema and Dughet, were sold to pay to fund the construction of some 80 estate workers’ cottages. In November of that year, then owner Charles Cobbe (father of Frances) wrote in his diary, ‘I have filled up the vacancies on my walls occasioned by the loss of the two pictures which have been sold, and I felt some satisfaction in thinking that my room (by the new arrangement) looks even more furnished than before.’ Such is still the case today. In 1985 Newbridge passed into the hands of the local authority, now Fingal County Council, which has been responsible for house and estate ever since. However, Alec Cobbe artist, designer and musical instrument collector, who grew up in the house continues to be devoted to the building. He has valiantly undertaken successive projects to preserve and conserve the interiors, not least the drawing room. As a result today, as noted by Bryant, this gorgeous space today ‘provides a rate opportunity to study an Irish collection in its historic context.’