The three-storey, octagonal dovecote at Mosstown, County Longford. Believed to date from the mid-18th century, it once stood inside the walled garden of Mosstown, an estate that for a long period belonged to the Newcomen baronets. At some date in the 17th century they built Mosstown, a long house of at least 11 bays and two-storeys with dormered attics and double gables. It passed into other hands in the 19th century but was still occupied until the 1930s, after which the property stood empty until regrettably demolished in 1962. Now sharing a field with a number of horses, this dovecote is one of the few remaining buildings to recall the estate’s existence. The two upper levels, with blind round-headed openings on the first floor and blind oculi on the second, had an interior housing pigeons but the ground floor is a single open space with handsome domed brick ceiling.
The limestone portico of Loughcrew, County Meath re-erected, at least in part. This singularly unlucky house was thrice burnt within a century and twice re-constructed. But after the third fire the building was demolished and Greek Ionic portico lay in pieces on the surrounding ground until partially reassembled a few years ago. Loughcrew was a neo-classical house designed by Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s for the Naper family. It was always an exceptionally severe looking building, and as has been noted, recalled a courthouse rather than a residence. Even its architect judged the finished work ‘very plain, too bald’, whereas what remains of the portico is wonderfully evocative and might almost serve as a symbol for all the other ruined country houses in Ireland.
Not all anniversaries are necessarily cause for celebration. Today marks the centenary of the burning of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, one among the first wave of Irish country houses to be burnt during the War of Independence, followed by many more over the course of the Civil War. Dating from the mid-18th century, Mount Shannon was originally built for the Oliver family but by 1765 it had been acquired by John FitzGibbon, who had converted from Roman Catholicism to the Established Church in order to practice law. This move ultimately also converted him into a wealthy man, so understandably the same profession was also followed by his son, another John FitzGibbon, who became known as ‘Black Jack’ for his hostility to the faith of his forebears and his advocacy of the 1800 Act of Union. Prior to that event, he served as last Lord Chancellor of Ireland and was rewarded with a peerage, becoming Earl of Clare in 1795. While he improved Mount Shannon and the surrounding demesne, it was his son the second earl who did most work on the place, not least by enhancing the façade with the addition of its great Ionic portico, designed by architect Lewis William Wyatt. Thanks to a pension secured by his father, he was also able to fill the interior with furniture and works of art collected during his travels in Europe, and from time spent in India as Governor of Mumbai (then called Bombay). Having no children, when he died in 1851 both title and estate passed to a younger brother.
The third Earl of Clare did not benefit from a government pension such as that enjoyed by his late brother, nor did he lead as charmed a life; in 1854 his son and heir, 25-year old Viscount FitzGibbon, was reported missing, presumed dead, after leading his troop of Royal Irish Huzzars at the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. His body was never recovered. So, when the third earl in turn died a decade later, Mount Shannon passed to the youngest of his three daughters, Lady Louisa FitzGibbon who likewise suffered various misfortunes: her first husband died, as did her son, and then her second husband – a Sicilian marchese – proved to be as just as impoverished as was she. Already in debt, the onset of the Land Wars finished off her prospects and in 1888 Lady Louisa’s creditors forced a sale of Mount Shannon and its contents. The house had two more owners before its eventual destruction, the first being Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor. He lived at Mount Shannon for less than a decade because in 1902, exactly a century after the first Earl of Shannon had died following a fall from a horse, Mr Nevins suffered the same fate. His wife followed him a few years later, and Mount Shannon was back on the market. Most of the land was divided up between local farmers and in 1915 the house and immediate surroundings were bought for £1,000 by one David O’Hannigan, who already owned a fine property some thirty miles to the south, Kilbolane House, County Cork (since demolished). However, he was unable to enjoy his new home for very long because on the night of June 14th 1920 Mount Shannon was set on fire by a local band of the IRA, leaving the building completely gutted; it is believed flames from the blazing site could be seen in Limerick city more than five miles away. What remains of the house has stood a ruin ever since. Over the next three years, there will be many more such centenaries to recall.
You can see and hear more about Mount Shannon on the Irish Aesthete’s new YouTube channel:
And a longer history of the house was published here in January 2014: https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/01/20/a-spectacular-fall-from-grace
South Hill, County Westmeath is a house of five bays and three-storeys over basement, believed to date from c.1810 and perhaps designed by Dublin architect William Farrell. The building’s most notable feature is a long, single-storey limestone pavilion attached to the facade and centred on a pilastered porch with wide fanlight. Constructed for a branch of the Tighe family, South Hill was then inherited by the Chapmans of Killua Castle, a few miles away; in 1870 Thomas Chapman became owner of the estate, following the death of an older brother. Chapman, who would later become Sir Thomas, seventh and last baronet, had four daughters with his wife, an ardent evangelical Christian. The couple hired a governess for the children, Sarah Lawrence and in 1885 she became pregnant, giving birth to a son. Chapman was the father, and when his wife discovered this, he left the family home and moved with Sarah Lawrence to Wales, where a second son, Thomas Edward, was born; having settled in Oxford, the couple would have several further sons. They and their four half-sisters appear never to have met each other.
Sir Thomas Chapman never returned to Ireland, although he continued to receive an annuity from the estate. His second son, who would become famous as Lawrence of Arabia, was aware of his Irish ancestry and of the fact that his father had lived in South Hill; in later years he considered acquiring land in the area, but this didn’t happen before his early death. Eventually the property was sold to an order of nuns and became an educational establishment. Today South Hill is surrounded by institutional buildings of outstanding architectural mediocrity.
A 19th century greenhouse in the gardens of Muckross House, County Kerry. The estate was owned by the Herbert family for several hundred years until indebtedness required its sale in 1899 when bought by Lord Ardilaun (whose wife was related to the former owners). The reason for the Herberts’ financial problems is often said to have been the expense incurred in entertaining Queen Victoria when she stayed with them for a few days in 1861, but this rather seems to be an instance of seeking a scapegoat. Long before Victoria thought of coming to the area, the family had demolished their previous residence and built a large new one, plus spent lavishly on their gardens, including the provision of many greenhouses such as this one, so the suspicion arises that even without a royal visit they would have eventually come a cropper.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Photographed at Coolcarrigan, County Kildare
Kilcoltrim, County Carlow: a substantial, five-bay, three storey over basement house that dates from the mid-18th century, it is listed by Samuel Lewis (1837) as being the residence of Edmund Hegarty but has long fallen into ruin. The most notable feature of the building, a cantilevered stone staircase located at the centre of the building, is documented as still intact when David Griffin compiled his list of vanishing or lost Irish country houses in 1988. This feature has since gone and little beyond a disintegrating shell now remains.
The idiosyncratic façade of Dunmain, County Wexford. The house can be dated to the 1690s when the land on which it stands were bought by Arron Lambert. It subsequently passed through a number of different owners including the owners but has been occupied by the present family since being bought at auction in February 1917. At either end of the five-bay, two-storey over basement building rise conical roofed octagonal towers, weather-slated like the rest of the building; that on the right houses a tiny 19th century chapel on the ground floor. It is unclear whether they are original to the building, or a later insertion. The granite pillared portico approached by a flight of steps looks to have been added in the 19th century.
Internationally acclaimed for his work, the astronomer William Edward Wilson was born in 1851 in Belfast, where his grandfather, also called William, had made a fortune in the shipping business. As a result, William senior bought each of his four sons an estate, that given to William junior’s father, John Wilson, being Daramona, County Westmeath. The younger William, not enjoying good health as a child, was educated at home but when he was 19 the opportunity arose to join an expedition travelling to Algeria to witness a total solar eclipse. This inspired his interest in astronomy and in due course he acquired his first telescope. When aged thirty, he constructed his own observatory at Daramona, on a site immediately adjacent to the house. Here he worked for the rest of his life, until his early death in 1908. Among the scientific breakthroughs with which he is credited are the production of the first photo-electric measurements of the brightness of stars and the first accurate determination of the temperature of the solar photosphere. He was also responsible for making a series of outstanding celestial photographs. As a result of his work, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896 and awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Trinity College Dublin in 1901.
Daramona is a mid-19th century, three-bay, two-storey Italianate villa probably built by John Wilson soon after the birth of his son, the future astronomer. There was an older house immediately behind the present one, but it has long since been demolished; it is suggested that the somewhat over-scaled limestone Doric entrance porch was recycled from the previous building. The doorcase behind has a particularly wide fanlight and sidelights. The interior is typical of the period, the most interesting space being the very substantial library, the largest room on the ground floor, which has timber panelled walls and, above the chimneypiece, a panel bearing the family coat of arms. Immediately behind the house, on the site of the earlier house, are two long service wings. Wilson’s two-storey observatory, completed around 1892 and originally domed, stands left of the rear of the house. Beyond it is a curtain wall topped with a balustrade and incorporating a pedimented doorcase leading providing access to the rear avenue.
Not long after Edward Wilson’s death in 1908, his widow and children moved first to County Cavan and then, following the outbreak of troubles in the 1920s, to England. His telescope was offered to the University of London where it remained until 1974; it is now in Liverpool’s Merseyside County Museum. Much of his original instrumentation when to Trinity College Dublin. Meanwhile, Daramona was sold to another family who lived in and maintained the property until it was put on the market in 2000. House and land were then bought by a local building firm which applied to construct 38 houses on the site. Thanks to a campaign by scientists in Ireland and around the world, this application was refused by the county council which in due course conferred protected structure status on the main building, ancillary outhouses, demesne wall and gates. Since then it would appear nothing has been done, so that today Daramona is fast falling into decay and – once more – taking with it part of the national history. Looking for a solution to this problem? One might as well follow William Wilson’s example, and look to the stars.
On August 25th 1732, the future Mrs Delany (then the merrily widowed Mrs Pendarves) embarked on a journey from Navan, County Meath to Cootehill, County Cavan. She wrote in her journal, ‘travelled through bad roads and a dull, uninhabited country, till we came to Cabaragh, Mr Prat’s house, an old castle modernized, and made very pretty: the master of it is a virtuoso, and discovers whim in all his improvements. The house stands on the side of a high hill; has some tall old trees about it; the gardens are small but neat; there are two little terrace walks, and down in a hollow is a little commodious lodge where Mr Prat lived whilst his house was repairing. But the thing that most pleased me, was a rivulet that tumbles down from rocks in a little glen, full of shrub-wood and trees; here a fine spring joisns the river, of the sweetest water in the world.’
The ‘Mr Prat’ to whom Mrs Pendarves refers was Mervyn Pratt, a sometime Member of the Irish Parliament representing County Cavan. His father, Joseph Pratt, had been one of two brothers who moved from Leicestershire to Ireland in the mid-17th century, both of them settling in County Meath. However, Joseph made an advantageous marriage to Elizabeth, only daughter and heiress of Col. Thomas Cooch (or Couch) who owned estates in Counties Donegal and Cavan. When he died in 1699, he left his property in the latter county to his grandson Mervyn Pratt, then aged 12. The heir duly settled on his inheritance and married Elizabeth, daughter of a neighbour, the Hon. Thomas Coote of Bellamont, County Cavan. At Cabra (spelled ‘Cabaragh’ by Mrs Pendarves), the couple’s home was an old castle, built at the start of the 17th century by Gerald Fleming (who had in turn been granted territory previously held by a branch of the O’Reilly family). This was the building which was ‘modernized and made very pretty.’
Today the castle at Cabra is just one of a number of buildings constructed or improved by Mervyn Pratt. A walk through the site today leads first to his former stable block (see first set of pictures), popularly known as the Barracks. A long, two-storey gabled block the east side features a series of lunettes resting on a string-course; most of these have been blocked up but two are open as part of doorcases into the building. Nothing remains of the interior. To the west and on higher ground are the remains of the extended old castle, primarily consisting of two four-storey towers, that to the south likely the original Fleming residence. Again, almost nothing survives of the interior, but somehow in the newer block there remains intact one plastered niche, as well as evidence of an adjacent cantilevered staircase. From this high spot, the land begins to drop and, past a typical domed and recessed icehouse, the path leads down to a lake beside which stands what’s left of the ‘little commodious lodge’ where Mervyn Pratt lived while the castle was being restored and enlarged. It has been proposed by Kevin Mulligan that this building (as well as the stables) were designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and originally featured a broad pedimented façade inspired, via the work of Lord Burlington, by Palladio’s Villa Valmarana at Vigardolo. As elsewhere, not a lot remains and indeed at least half of the building no longer stands; the central portion has lost its pediment and, given a flat, utilitarian roof, is now used as a store shed. But at least here, enough does survive for the original concept to be apparent.
The Pratts remained in possession, but perhaps not in residence at Cabra for the rest of the 18th century; in his Statistical Survey of the County of Cavan (1802) Sir Charles Coote while enthusiastic about the improvements undertaken by Mervyn Pratt and his successors in the local town of Kingscourt, was much less engaged with the demesne and buildings at Cabra. ‘The ruins of the old castle,’ he wrote, ‘which was the family mansion, are contiguous to the house, but quite too near to have any pleasing effect, which such pieces of antiquity afford in the landscape.’ Sir Charles was far more enthusiastic about the landscape and house at nearby Cormy (‘very beautiful, and formed with great judgement and true economy’) owned by Henry Foster who was then undertaking to transform a standard Georgian house into a romantic Gothic castle. However, before this work was finished, Cormy was sold to Colonel Joseph Pratt who abandoned the old family old home and renamed the new one Cabra Castle. This remained in the ownership of his descendants until 1964 and has since been used as an hotel. Meanwhile the older Cabra estate fell into neglect until acquired by the national Forest and Wildlife Service in 1959. Today it is run by Coillte (the state forestry body) and open to the public as Dún a Rí forest park.