Shrouded in Mystery

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As has been noted here more than once, sometimes even the largest houses in this country can have elusive histories. Such is the case with Kilmanahan Castle, County Waterford. Despite the scale of the property and a prominent location perched high over the river Suir, not to mention its evident age, there appears to be relatively little information available about the place. At its core is an mediaeval castle erected by the FitzGeralds, perhaps the round tower on the south-east of the site: there are a number of similarly circular castles in this part of the country, not least at Moorstown with which Kilmanahan would be linked by family connections. In 1586 the land on which it stood was acquired (as part of a parcel of some 11,500 acres) by Sir Edward Fitton whose father had come to this country and risen to be Lord President of Connaught and Vice-Treasurer of Ireland. However Fitton seems to have over-extended himself and this may explain why in the early years of the 17th century Kilmanahan was bought by Sir James Gough, whose family were wealthy merchants in Waterford city. It next changed hands in 1678 when granted to Godfrey Greene, son of another English-born planter. A Captain in the what was called the King’s Irish Protestant Army, Godfrey had remained loyal to the crown during the Cromwellian interregnum and thus benefitted from the return of the monarchy in 1660. Among the other properties he acquired was the aforementioned Moorstown Castle a few miles away in County Tipperary.

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The Greenes remained at Kilmanahan until the mid-19th century. Moorstown was left by Godfrey Greene to his eldest son, Kilmanahan being left to a younger son Rodolphus, as also happened in the next generation (it appears the marriages of Rodolphus’ first two sons displeased their father). The last of the line to spend his lifetime at Kilmanahan was Lieutenant-Colonel Nuttall Greene, born in 1769 and only dying in 1847. It would appear that he and his wife Charlotte Ann Parsons were responsible for greatly extending the castle to the north and west, thereby over-extending themselves with the result that in the aftermath of the Great Famine, Kilmanahan was sold through the Encumbered Estates Court (by a twist of fate, the other branch at Moorstown also lost their estate during the same period). It probably also didn’t help that the couple had a very large number of children, five sons and nine daughters, for whom provision would have had to be made. In any case, although inherited by their heir William Greene the place was sold in 1852; its purchaser resold Kilmanahan just three years later to Thomas Wright Watson who, like several previous owners, had been born in England. By the start of the last century, Kilmanahan had changed hands again, passing into the ownership of the Hely-Hutchinsons, Earls of Donoughmore whose main estate, Knocklofty lay to the immediate south on the other side of the Suir. The Donoughmores sold up and left Ireland more than thirty years ago.

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Kilmanahan manifests evidence of having been developed over several distinct periods. The earliest section, as already mentioned, seems to be in the castle in the south-east corner. To the east of this is what looks to have been a projecting three-storey gate house which was then linked to the castle, also subsequently extended in the other direction; the latter portion’s window openings suggest this development took place in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, when the building was occupied by the Fittons and Goughs. The next major building development looks to have happened in the 18th century when a seven-bay, two-storey block was constructed to the immediate north of the old castle. This then became the main entrance front and would have contained the main reception rooms, with a corresponding wing incorporating central canted bow erected west directly above the river. The latter was in turn further extended south with the addition of a slightly smaller service wing, linking to a taller, single-bay block that terminated the river facade. The result of these additions was the creation of a large internal courtyard, accessed through an arch on the south side: inside can be seen the remains of a handsome classical stable block centred on a pedimented, breakfront coach house. At some later date, perhaps during the time of Nuttall and Charlotte Greene, the entire structure was given a gothic carapace, with the addition of abundant castellations, Tudor hood mouldings over the (otherwise classical sash) windows, an elaborate arched moulding over the principal entrance and so forth. The north-east corner of the entrance front was then made into a round tower, to match that already to the south-east (the original castle). A door at the north-western corner carries the Donoughmore coat of arms and the date 1909, indicating this was when the family took over the place, but images in the National Library of Ireland’s Lawrence Photograph Collection show the work of gothicisation had taken place by then. And as can be seen here, there are further, extensive outbuildings lying to the immediate south, further evidence this was once the centre of a substantial estate. Today, although some planting has been done in the surrounding parkland, Kilmanahan Castle is in poor condition. Since the building is heavily boarded up, investigation of its interior (and the possibility of better understanding the building’s evolution) is not possible. The site’s architectural history retains many secrets, especially when seen – as on the occasion of a recent visit – in winter fog. The weather conspired to shroud Kilmanahan Castle still further in mystery.

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With the Gates

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The triumphal arch marking the entrance to Rosmead, County Westmeath. Its design attributed to English architect Samuel Woolley and dating from the mid-1790s, the arch is of limestone embellished with Coade stone ornamentation, now badly weathered: the design once also included urns and statuary but this has all long-since gone. The arch was originally erected at Glananea some seven miles away in the same county. The latter property had been built by Ralph Smyth, whose family owned several estates in the area, and who called his property Ralphsdale. Having had the arch erected, he came to be known locally as ‘Smyth with the Gates.’ Tiring of the nickname he disposed of the arch to its present home, only to find himself given the new title ‘Smyth without the Gates.’ Ironically, while Rosmead is now just a shell Glananea still stands, so perhaps it would have been better for the arch to have remained there.

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Let’s Go On

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And so 2016 draws to its close, a year which for many people around the world has been so crowded with shock one suspects its departure will not be much mourned. But like Barthelemy Cramillion’s mid-18th century stucco bird (originally in Mespil House, now in Dublin Castle, for more see Head in the Clouds, March 2016) we must try to soar above our present circumstances and hope the future will bring better times. And like the elephant below in the entrance hall of Huntington Castle, County Carlow, we can do our best to move forward slowly and steadily. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: Well, shall we go on? Yes, let’s go on.

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The Irish Aesthete wishes a very Happy New Year to all friends and followers.

The Missing Twin

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Above are three images of the main staircase in the former Archbishop’s Palace, Cashel, County Tipperary. Long attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and dating from c.1730 this building is rightly deemed important for retaining much of its original interior, not least these stairs in red pine. Its features include a richly carved apron below the first-floor gallery and the balusters, those on the return capped with Corinthian columns, the others being fluted in their upper section and with barley-sugar twists in the lower.
One of the past year’s happiest moments has been the discovery of the Cashel Palace staircase’s ‘twin’ in a house in County Westmeath. Although the two buildings have little in common externally (and the latter is usually dated much later), both share this interior feature which in design and execution alike are essentially identical, the Westmeath apron being slightly more elaborate. More research needs to be undertaken on the subject: something to look forward to in 2017…

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And Now for Something Completely Different

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As the picture above shows, until the late 1860s Bessmount, County Monaghan was a fairly standard, medium-sized country house, of two storeys over basement and with a five-bay façade onto which the box-like porch had been added. With a Wyatt window on the first floor being the only feature of interest, it looks to be of indeterminate date, both 1722 and 1807 having been proposed as when originally constructed. Either or indeed any time in between are possible, since the building gives the appearance of being solid but unimaginative in its design. In the 18th century the land on which it stands belonged to a branch of the Montgomery family and in 1758 an eldest daughter, Mary Montgomery married Alexander Nixon of the now-demolished Nixon Hall, County Fermanagh. The couple’s second son, Alexander Nixon Montgomery, inherited Bessmount where he lived until his death in 1837.

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Although Alexander Nixon Montgomery and his wife Eliza (nee Stanley) had no less than nine children, Bessmount was sold a few years after his death. The purchaser was John Hatchell, a wealthy Monaghan brewer who a few years later married Elizabeth Anne Speer from nearby Glaslough. Their daughter Frances Maria in turn married William Henderson whose own family were associated with the linen industry and it would seem that the couple, having sufficient funds from their forebears’ respective businesses, decided to recast Bessmount, transforming what had been a rather staid residence into something completely different.

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Despite its extraordinary appearance, and relatively late date, we do not know who was the architect responsible for Bessmount’s makeover. Two names have been suggested, one being the Newry-born William Barre who worked mostly in the Ulster region and whose Danesfort House in Belfast has a very similar entrance tower. But Barre died in 1867 (that is, before work began at Bessmount) so the other architect proposed is John McCurdy, then working nearby on Monaghan’s District Lunatic Asylum (now St Davnet’s Hospital), the largest such institution in the country. Whether one of these gentlemen or another party, whoever received the commission clearly had a field day with the project, no doubt encouraged by his clients whose carved portraits can be seen in medallions on either side of the entrance porch (Mrs Henderson being tricked out to look like Queen Elizabeth I: perhaps a play on the house’s name?). Bessmount metamorphosed from a dull Georgian block into an extravagance of Ruskinian Gothic, thanks to the use of certain devices such as bands of yellow and red brick especially in the aforementioned tower (which originally served the practical purpose of holding the house’s water tanks). Asymmetry rules across the intentionally stepped façade, so that the eye is constantly moving from one feature to the next, whether the large gable featuring crests of the Hatchell and Henderson families, the trefoil-headed canted bay window that lights the drawing room or the first-floor oriel turret on the opposite side of the house. Meanwhile the south-facing garden front is enlivened by a Gothic conservatory raised on arcades, while to the immediate north a short link leads to the only major extension to the property, a large ‘music room’ that both inside and out resembles a Victorian village hall.

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The interiors of Bessmount are not as remarkable as the exterior, perhaps because funds – and imagination – ran low. To a considerable extent they retain their pre-refurbishment appearance, albeit here and there tricked out in gothic finery. The majority of chimney pieces, for example, were in the original house, but their interiors now lined with pretty Minton tiles. Really the fun is on the outside, not least the porch where whoever received the commission to carve the capitals (the late Jeremy Williams proposed the Fitzpatrick brothers of Belfast) didn’t hold back. The ornamentation is lavish in the extreme, a bestiary of animal life ranging from bats and monkeys to frogs and rabbits, many of them peeking out of the undergrowth to pull a face as though determined to ruin a staid animal kingdom portrait. It is all rather droll, conveying the impression that the earnest intentions behind Ruskin’s advocacy of the Gothic mode are here being guyed. Fortunately the opportunity to relish this architectural humour remains since Bessmount still stands intact and in good order. The property changed hands in the last century when it once more became a Montgomery house, as is the case to the present. The owners are well aware of the building’s importance and have undertaken repair work where feasible. A cheering note with which to approach the year’s end.

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Presents of Mind IV

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If anyone ought to be familiar with the library at Birr Castle, County Offaly it is the building’s present chateleine, Alison Rosse. Located to the immediate right of the entrance hall, this rooom has been the victim of no less than two accidental fires, the first in 1832 and the second ninety years later. But on both occasions the library was restored and its shelves restocked so that today it looks as though the place never suffered any damage. Like all good domestic libraries, it serves a multitude of purposes: not just as a repository for books, but somewhere to take tea or repose, a space in which to seek sanctuary or hospitality. All this is evident in the watercolour seen above which shows the castle library well able to fulfill these functions, and many others besides. It appears in a new publication, Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries featuring twenty-five such spaces as captured by Alison Rosse, accompanied by William Laffan’s text. Most of those included, a mixture of public and private libraries, still exist but one that has since been dispersed is that of the late Maurice Craig, shown below. When Maurice and Agnes Bernelle lived in Sandymount, Dublin he maintained this room on the first floor of their house. Following her death and his move to a smaller residence, he brought a great many of the books with him: I remember them being crammed into shelves and heaped on every available surface along which a resident cat (Maurice loved cats) would step with such care that no volume was ever displaced. Despite the seeming disorder, he was familiar with the place of every work in the collection and immediately able to lay his hand on whatever was needed for consultation. Bibliophiles love books not just for their physical beauty but also for their content. And such will be the case with the present publication, recommended as a last-minute gift (although book lovers will appreciate receiving a copy any time).
Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse and William Laffan is published by the Irish Georgian Society, €10.00

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The Irish Aesthete wishes a Happy and Peaceful Christmas to all friends and followers.

 

A Vanishing Narrative

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As many readers will be aware, right across Ireland can be seen the remains of hundreds, possibly thousands, of former fine residences dating from the seventeenth century onwards. Even in ruin their scale makes them prominent marks on the landscape, testaments to our country’s history, witnesses to an order which once prevailed but has now passed. Because of the societal and economic imbalance they represented, many of today’s citizens understandably do not mourn their passing. Nevertheless they are part of the national narrative. We ought at least to know their stories, so that they can better inform our own. Unfortunately their mute condition today often means we know little or nothing of each building’s distinctive tale, of how they came into being and then fell into decline. Once this information was familiar, if only to those who occupied the property, or worked on the estate. Now it has frequently been forgotten and another property’s unique character becomes part of the generic ‘Big House’ story. This seems to be the case with Nettleville, County Cork, yet another ruin about which relatively little information is available.

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Around 1630 John Nettles moved here from Herefordshire around 1630: inevitably he is described in Burke’s Landed Gentry of 1871 as springing from ‘an ancient English family’ (perish the thought that anyone’s background might not disappear into the foggiest mists of time). Evidently he flourished here since in 1666 he was confirmed by Charles II in a grant of land of 1,258 acres in Counties Waterford and Cork, although his residence was in the latter at Tourin, later to pass into the ownership of the Musgrave family. It was his second son, Robert Nettles, who came to live on an estate where the remains of Nettleville can now be found. On the failure of this line of the family, the Cork property passed back to the main branch, and in the second half of the 18th century was inherited by Captain Robert Nettles. Ambrose Leet’s 1814 Directory lists Nettleville as occupied by the Rev Bazil Orpin, who had married one of the Nettles daughters. However, his tenure was only temporary. Although Captain Nettles and his wife had five sons, four of them died young either through accidents or in warfare (one, Ensign William Nettles being killed at the Battle of Waterloo). That left a single heir, Richard Nevill-Nettles who on the death of his father in 1828 inherited Nettleville. He in turn was succeeded by his only son Robert Nettles, listed in the 1870s as owning 1,684 acres in County Cork. Seemingly Nettleville was still occupied by the Nettles family at the start of the last century but thereafter there does not appear to be further mention of them, leading to the supposition that they died out. Interestingly in September 1919 the Irish Builder mentions Cork architect Bartholomew O’Flynn being employed at Nettleville to carry out alterations and additions, so evidently someone was still living there.

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And so to Nettleville, which in the national register of buildings is listed as being built c.1800, although one suspects this is speculative since what survives of the building makes it difficult to discover any specific design features that would allow more precise dating. The south-facing front of the house, now completely immersed in vegetation, is of two storeys over basement but since the site slopes the rear – which looks down to a point where the river Lee loops around on itself – is of three storeys. On this side, to the east of the house is a single-storey extension with narrow arched niches but there does not seem ever to have been its equivalent to the west. While in the main built of dressed sandstone, the house’s windows feature cut limestone sills and red brick voussoirs; no doubt the whole exterior was originally rendered to give a uniformity of appearance.
A short distance to the south-east lies a large yard, the greater part of which is in better condition than the house it was created to serve. Centred on a fine arched gateway, its pediment extended to accommodate a bell, the yard effectively divides into upper and lower sections, assisted once more by the sloping site. Handsomely constructed, and still, at least in part, serviceable, it demonstrates this was once a thriving estate. Now, however, Nettleville is just another ruin on the Irish landscape and its voice in our historical narrative grows weaker as the old buildings grow closer and closer to complete disappearance.

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