When the Sun Comes Out

After our recent blizzards, a reminder of what Ireland can look like in the summer: Muckross, County Kerry. Here is the east front of the house designed by Scottish architect William Burn and built 1839-43 for Col. Henry Arthur Herbert whose family settled here in the second half of the 16th century. Famously Queen Victoria came to stay with the Herberts for two nights in August 1861: seemingly so much was spent preparing for this visit that the owners’ finances never recovered. In 1899 the estate was sold to Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun whose wife was related to the Herberts. Later it was acquired by Californian mining magnate William Bowers Bourn who together with his son-in-law Arthur Vincent later presented the house and surrounding 11,000 acres to the Irish state. Muckross accordingly became Ireland’s first National Park.

Ruins of a Great House

Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,
Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,
Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws.
The mouths of those gate cherubs shriek with stain;
Axle and coach wheel silted under the muck
Of cattle droppings.
Three crows flap for the trees
And settle, creaking the eucalyptus boughs.
A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose
The leprosy of empire.
“Farewell, green fields,
Farewell, ye happy groves!”
Marble like Greece, like Faulkner’s South in stone,
Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone,
But where the lawn breaks in a rash of trees
A spade below dead leaves will ring the bone
Of some dead animal or human thing
Fallen from evil days, from evil times.

It seems that the original crops were limes
Grown in that silt that clogs the river’s skirt;
The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone,
The river flows, obliterating hurt.
I climbed a wall with the grille ironwork
Of exiled craftsmen protecting that great house
From guilt, perhaps, but not from the worm’s rent
Nor from the padded calvary of the mouse.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the abuse
Of ignorance by Bible and by sword.
A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone,
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplexed
In memory now by every ulcerous crime.
The world’s green age then was rotting lime
Whose stench became the charnel galleon’s text.
The rot remains with us, the men are gone.
But, as dead ash is lifted in a wind
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.

Ablaze with rage I thought,
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
But still the coal of my compassion fought
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, “part of the continent, piece of the main”,
Nook-shotten, rook o’erblown, deranged
By foaming channels and the vain expense
Of bitter faction.
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:
“as well as if a manor of thy friend’s. . .”

“Ruins Of A Great House” by Derek Walcott

Behind the Scenes

One of the best-known views of Curraghmore, County Waterford is the façade of the house, the top of which is adorned with the stag of St Hubert, a crucifix between its antlers. This figure is taken from the family crest of the de la Poers who are believed to have first come to Ireland along with other Norman settlers in the 12th century. Here is a photograph taken on the roof of the building and showing the other side of the stag. At some date a metal bar was inserted into the animals’s neck to prevent the head falling off. Meanwhile, Curraghmore’s garden front is likewise topped by a beast, in this instance a dragon with a broken spear through its neck. This comes from the Beresford crest: in 1717 Sir Marcus Beresford married Lady Catherine de la Poer, only child of James, third Earl of Tyrone. Again, repairs have been carried out to the work. Both the stag and dragon were made by Viennese-born sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm, a favourite of the British royal family: he carved several statues of Queen Victoria and her daughter Princess Louise was one of his pupils (indeed he died in her house in London in 1890). Conveniently the back of the dragon carries the date 1st November 1872, presumably referring to when it was made rather than installed on Curraghmore’s roofline.

A Great House that had Lost its Pride

Half a century ago, in 1968, the big house at Kilballyowen, County Limerick was demolished. As its then-owner Lt.-Col. Gerald Vigors de Courcy O’Grady – whose family have been based there for hundreds of years – recalled some time later, ‘The huge rooms were too big to live in; it was impossible to live in a house of that nature. If you could live there in warm conditions – yes. It was just a necessity. No I didn’t just want to leave it empty, so there are no remains. I do not like living near ruins; there are too many around here.’ His wife commented that by the late 1960s the house ‘was in a terrifying state of repair and we did not have the money to fix it. We had thought of selling just the house, but then we were afraid we might lose the land as well. It was a great house that had lost its pride.’ There was no support for the owners and no state interest in the preservation of such properties. And so, like very many others, Kilballyowen came down.

The surname O’Grady derives from the Irish Ó Grádaigh or Ó Gráda, meaning ‘noble’. The O’Grady family originally lived in East County Clare where they were based in the area around Tuamgraney (where they built a tower house adjacent to what is now the oldest centre of continuous religious worship in Ireland, St Cronan’s which dates from the 10th century). During the Middle Ages various O’Gradys frequently held high positions in the Roman Catholic Church. It helped that clerical celibacy was then not much enforced. Thus in 1332 Eoin (or John) O’Grady became Archbishop of Cashel and, in 1366 his son, also called John, became Archbishop of Tuam. In turn, the latter’s son, another John O’Grady, was made Bishop of Elphin in 1405. At the same time they were frequently at war with other families in the area, not least their distant cousins and former allies, the O’Briens who eventually drove the O’Gradys out of Clare. One of the family, a younger son called Hugh O’Grady had in the early 14th century married a daughter of the head of the O Ciarmhaic family in Knockainy in east Limerick and this would lead their descendants to settle at Kilballyowen. There successive male heirs became the head of the family and were known as The O’Grady.

The core of the now-demolished Kilballyowen was a tower house dating from c.1500, around which a house had been built in the first half of the 18th century, and then further extended by a new wing in 1810: in 1837 Samuel Lewis described the property as ‘a handsome modern building in a richly planted demesne.’ The building had a five-bay façade with a two-bay projecting extension to one side: the garden front featured a three-bay breakfront. Nothing of the house remains but the stableyard to the immediate north-west remains. Set around an open court, the four blocks are of almost equal dimensions and contain carriage houses, stalls and accommodation for the employees who would formerly have worked here. Although in poor repair, the buildings still bear testimony to the character of the old house. Had times been different, had it survived even a decade or two longer, might Kilballyowen be standing yet? What happened here also happened right across the country during the 1950s and ‘60s. While better support mechanisms are now in place to provide some assistance, they are relatively modest, thereby leaving much of our stock of historic houses at risk. The story of Kilballyowen, a great house that had lost its pride, is a too-frequent story in Ireland.

Another Gratuitous Loss

The castellated entrance into the former Camlin estate, County Donegal. The land here was bought c.1718 from William ‘Speaker’ Conolly by William Tredennick, who had moved to Ireland from Cornwall. The drive led to a large Tudor-Gothic house which, like the entrance was designed around 1838 by John Benjamin Keane and featured a plethora of battlements and turrets draped over what was essentially a symmetrical, classical residence. The Tredennicks remained here for more than two centuries, the last of them leaving the place in 1929. Some twenty years later the main house was blown up by the Electricity Supply Board, then engaged in the Erne Hydro-Electric Scheme. It was thought Camlin would be submerged by the new lake but in fact the water’s edge never came close to the site of the building so its destruction was entirely gratuitous. The entrance is all that now remains to indicate the lost house’s appearance.

Fit for a New Bride

In Ireland today the name John B Keane is usually associated with a Kerry author of popular stage dramas. In the 19th century however, it would be more likely taken to refer to a successful architect. The date of John Benjamin Keane’s birth is unknown but by 1819-20 he was working as an assistant to Richard Morrison. In 1823 he was listed in Wilson’s Dublin Directory as practising under his own name and for the next two decades enjoyed a busy career. Among his most notable commissions was the design of St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, recently restored after a disastrous fire in 2009, and Queen’s College in Galway (now NUI Galway) in 1845. Keane’s winning design for the latter was described at the time as being ‘ a magnificent edifice in the style of Henry the Eight’s time.’ In addition to such public properties, he also designed a number of private residences, including Magheramenagh Castle, County Fermanagh.

Magheramenagh belonged to a branch of the Johnston family, large numbers of whom had moved from Scotland to this part of the country in the early 17th century. Successive generations lived in the same area of Fermanagh, the estate being inherited in 1833 by James Johnston who five years later married Cecilia, daughter of Thomas Newcomen Edgeworth of County Longford. It would appear that around this time he commissioned from Keane the design of a home for his new bride. The building was much in the style then fashionable, a loose interpretation of Tudor Gothic indicated by the presence of blind gables, polygonal turrets, castellations and finials. Of two storeys other (than a three-floor square tower in the north-east corner) and all faced in crisp limestone, the main entrance was to the north, the southern front looking down on the river Erne. A large conservatory occupied much of the eastern end of the building while the service wing stood to the west, an enfilade of four reception rooms occupying the space between.

Ultimately neither Magheramenagh nor its architect had a happy ending. Keane’s career was wrecked by alcoholism, he fell into debt and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Gaol (a debtor’s prison off Dublin’s south quays: it was demolished in 1975) before dying in 1859. Meanwhile James Johnston had died in 1873 and Magheramenagh passed to his son Robert. He in turn died just nine years later, leaving the estate to his son James Cecil Johnston, then aged less than two. James Cecil would be killed at Gallipoli in August 1915, Magheramenagh then occupied by his widow and two young daughters. Unable to manage, they left the property in 1921 and it was bought as a residence for the local Roman Catholic priest: the following May the house was briefly taken over by the members of the British armed forces. Reverting back to the parish, thereafter it remained in use as a presbytery until the 1950s when abandoned and unroofed. Afterwards a large part of the house was demolished: it can be seen what now remains on the site.

When Moore is More

On February 1st next it will be 95 years since Moore Hall, County Mayo was needlessly burnt by a group of anti-treaty forces during the Civil War. Since then the building has stood empty and falling ever further into ruin. Moore Hall’s history was discussed here some time ago, (see When Moore is Less, June 30th 2014), and at the time it looked as though the house, dating from the 1790s, had little viable future. For many years the surrounding land has been under the control of Coillte, the state-sponsored forestry company, which displayed no interest in the historic property for which it was responsible. However, yesterday Mayo County Council announced it had purchased Moore Hall and 80 acres. The council proposes ‘to develop the estate as a nationally important nature reserve and tourism attraction’, its chief executive declaring this will ‘ensure that the natural, built and cultural heritage of Moorehall is protected yet developed and managed in a sustainable manner for current and future generations.’ Further details have yet to be provided, but one initiative Moore Hall’s new owners could immediately undertake is to clear away the trees that now grow almost up to the front door, thereby reopening the view to Lough Carra and explaining why the house was built on this site.