The entrance front of Tullynisk, County Offaly. Dating from the early 19th century and replacing an older property on the site, the house is a mixture of the classical and gothic, the former evident in the doorcase with its Ionic columns, the latter in the window directly above. The combination of the two is as unselfconsciously assured as the sheep grazing in the immediate vicinity.
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
‘We are,’ they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will still be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
And Yet the Books by Czeslaw Milosz.
Photographs of the library at Clonalis, County Roscommon (https://clonalis.com)
The garden front of Clonalis, County Roscommon. Ancestral seat of the O’Conor Don (one of Ireland’s most ancient families, descended from the country’s last High Kings), the present house replaced an earlier one elsewhere on the estate. As seen today, Clonalis was designed in 1878 by Frederick Pepys Cockerell, one of his few Irish commissions. It was one of the very first houses in Ireland constructed using concrete, with a cement render finish to the exterior and in a manner that is customarily judged to have blended elements of the Queen Anne style with Italianate classicism. The entrance front (below) is dominated by a three storey tower that projects forward to create a porch for the door on the ground floor. Clonalis is significant for being one of the rare Irish houses still to remain in the hands of the original family
More from Clonalis early in the new year…
After last Monday’s rather dispiriting tale about Syngefield, County Offaly, here is a much more positive story. Almost exactly six years ago I visited Hazelwood, County Sligo and a few months later wrote about the house and its sad condition (see Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata, February 25th 2013). To recap: Located immediately south of Sligo town on a peninsula that juts out into Lough Gill, Hazelwood once had a garden front that looked down through a series of terraces to the water’s edge: the entrance front faces north across a long plain of pasture towards Ben Bulben. As I wrote at the time, ‘It is easy to see why General Owen Wynne should have chosen this spot on which to build a new residence following the purchase of some 14,500 acres in the area in 1722. Nine years later he employed the architect Richard Castle, then much in demand, to design the house. Hazelwood is typical of the Palladian style fashionable in Ireland at the time of its construction. The ashlar-fronted central block, of three storeys over basement, is joined by arcaded quadrants to two storey wings. Above the north front’s pedimented entrance (inset with a carving of the family’s coat of arms) there is a splendid glazed aedicule with Ionic columns and pilasters and flanked by round-headed niches, while the south front boldly proposes a Venetian door below a Venetian window. The building’s sense of significance is increased by both entrances being accessed by sweeping flights of steps. The interiors must have been similarly superlative, since even after many years of neglect enough of their decoration remains to indicate the original appearance. The main entrance hall has recessed arches on its walls above which hang plasterwork swags, and a deep dentilled cornice. A central doorway leads into the south-facing library which contains similar ornamentation and from here one passes into a succession of other reception rooms. Upstairs is equally splendid: a massive staircase hall leads, via a deep coved archway, into the first floor landing the ceiling of which is open to the galleried second storey, the whole series of spaces once lit by a glazed octagon. Most of the rooms have lost their original chimneypieces, replaced by others of a later fashion since the Wynnes were not averse to making alterations, some less happy than others; a two-storey, three-bay bedroom extension on the south-west corner of the building dating from c.1870 for example fundamentally disrupts Castle’s meticulously planned symmetry. Still, whatever about the Wynne family’s modifications to their property, they were nothing to what would follow once Hazelwood passed into the hands of later owners.’
The last Wynne to live at Hazelwood left in 1923, after which the house stood empty for seven years. It was then bought by a retired tea planter who carried out essential repairs before selling house and estate to two government bodies, the Forestry Department and the Land Commission, the latter assuming responsibility for the building. In 1946, after serving for some time as a military barracks, Hazelwood and the immediate surrounds were offered for sale by the commission with the condition that a buyer must demolish the buildings, remove all materials and level the site. Somehow, days before the auction was due to be held, this stipulation was withdrawn and Hazelwood sold for use as a psychiatric hospital; it was shortly afterwards that the original staircase was taken out of the house. As if this wasn’t bad enough, in 1969 an Italian company called Snia which produced nylon yarn bought Hazelwood and built a factory for some 600 employees. It would have been perfectly feasible for the business to have erected these premises on a site out of view of the old house and screened by trees, thus preserving the Arcadian parkland created by the Wynnes. Indeed one might have thought the relevant planning authorities in Sligo County Council would have insisted this be the case. But instead the factory, surrounded by an expanse of tarmac, went up just a couple of hundred yards to the rear of Hazelwood, covering a space of no less than six acres and thereby destroying the house’s setting. In 1983 the business closed down and four years later the factory was sold to a South Korean company which produced video tapes; this too went out of business. The following year Hazelwood was sold to Foresthaze, a consortium of predominantly local businessmen and in 2007 they applied for permission to build 158 detached houses and 54 apartments in four blocks (in their defence, they also intended to sweep away the factory). This application was refused by the local authority, litigation among members of the consortium ensued, the recession arrived, Foresthaze went into receivership and – when I visited six years ago – the future of Hazelwood looked extremely bleak.
In late 2014 Hazelwood and some 80 acres was acquired by new owners who possess both vision and financial backing to ensure the place will have a viable future. The proposed scheme sees a whiskey distillery (for a new brand called Athrú) installed in part of the former factory, much of the rest of this enormous site to be deployed as a visitors’ centre and storage facility: the building’s location, surrounded by water on three sides of the peninsula, makes it perfect for a distillery. As for the house, this is to be restored to serve a variety of purposes, all intended to engage with people who come to see Hazelwood and enjoy its new facilities. Already essential conservation work has been undertaken: the west wing, inaccessible six years ago, has been re-roofed and its interior cleared. From attic to basement, dry rot in sections of the main house has been tackled and water ingress stopped. The building is now stable and, while it may still not look too lovely, a further programme of restoration work is planned for the coming years. This looks like being a long-term project, and the better for that: jobs undertaken too fast often prove to be faulty. The owners’ aspiration is that when everything is complete (and that includes tackling many outlying buildings around the former estate) Hazelwood will attract some 200,000 visitors annually. Athrú is an Irish word meaning change or transform. Thanks to this ambitious scheme the future of Hazelwood looks changed and its transformation has begun.
In February 2001 the Irish Times reported that Syngefield, County Offaly was being offered for sale. The mid-18th century house had stood vacant for more than two decades, and inevitably was in poor repair as a result. Once surrounded by a substantial amount of land, it now stood on five acres, with factories on either side of the drive, and the outbuildings already sold off. Meanwhile much of the house’s original interior had been either vandalized or stolen – all the chimneypieces were gone, for example – but enough remained, as photographs taken at the time can demonstrate. Most of the main staircase was intact, along with windowcases, lugged architraves, floorboards and some plasterwork. Of particular interest in the Irish Times feature was the information that whoever purchased the property ‘will have to comply with the strict conditions of conservation. Birr Urban District Council sought the advice of the Heritage Council and the property has been assessed by an independent conservation service.’ Hence while the guide price was low – in the region of £150,000 – the costs of bringing Syngefield back to life would be considerably higher.
As is so often the case in Ireland, the origins of Syngefield are unclear. It belonged to a branch of the Synges, cousins of the playwright John Millington Synge, and the house appears to have been built in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps around 1752 when Edward Synge married Sophia Hutchinson. There were many Edward Synges during the Georgian period, almost all of them Anglican clergymen: this one was the grandson of Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam and nephew of Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin and son of Nicholas Synge, Bishop of Killaloe. It was therefore almost inevitable that he too would join the church, becoming archdeacon of Killala, as well as rector of Birr, County Offaly, hence the construction of Syngefield. His eldest son, another Edward, followed the family example and became an Anglican clergyman but a younger son, Robert, became a baronet and it was his family that continued to live in the property. At the time the Synges owned land not just in Offaly but also Counties Meath and Cork. Descendants appear to have remained in residence at Syngefield until c.1870 after which the house was sporadically let, and then sold in the last century.
Syngefield was a curious house, owing to its lop-sided appearance. Of two storeys over a semi-raised basement, it had six bays, that to the furthest left featuring Venetian windows on both ground and first floors, aping one on the upper floor above the entrance doorcase (Another oddity were the Diocletian windows in the basement.) A number of writers have proposed that a matching bay at the other end of the house had been built, thereby completing the symmetry of the façade, but that this was lost in a fire at some unspecified date. However, just as possible is that the original mid-18th century house comprised the five centre bays. The left-hand bay is a later addition, with a match at the other end of the building intended but never built owing to shortage of funds, a not-unusual situation in Ireland. In any case, when a new owner acquired the property in 2002, he decided to finish the house as was once perhaps conceived by tacking a new bay to the right of the existing property. He also doubled the size of Syngefield thanks to a vast extension at the rear that was to include a basement swimming pool, home cinema, ballroom and more bedrooms: readers can judge for themselves whether this work complied, as the Irish Times had reported would be the case, ‘with the strict conditions of conservation.’ This job, said to have cost in the region of €1 million, was never completed, presumably owing to the onset of economic recession, and in October 2009 Syngefield was offered for sale again. There appear to have been no takers, because today the unfinished structure stands with exterior and interior alike bereft of every original feature. How is it that what was intended to be a model of correct conservation came to look like this?
The entrance front of Castle Coole, County Fermanagh. The house was designed by James Wyatt, who took over from Richard Johnston (brother of the better-known Francis Johnston), and built between 1789 and 1798 at a cost of £57,000 for Armar Lowry-Corry, first Earl of Belmore. Wyatt never visited the site, but sent over a number of craftsmen from London to supervise the building work, not least the neo-classical exteriors clad in Portland stone (the garden façade is below). Ownership of the property was transferred to the National Trust in 1951.
The garden front of Palmerstown, County Kildare. The estate here was acquired in the middle of the 17th century by a branch of the Bourke family, later Earls of Mayo, who built a residence later described as ‘an old fashioned house, added to from time to time in an irregular manner, the rooms low and small but enriched with some good pictures, particularly a set of Sir Joshuas.’ In 1872 Richard Southwell Bourke, the sixth earl, was assassinated while serving as Viceroy of India. Subsequently a new house was erected for the family, the costs defrayed by public subscription: a plaque over the entrance notes that it was built ‘by his friends and countrymen.’ Designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt in what is generously described as a Queen-Anne style, the second Palmerstown only lasted half a century, being burnt during the Civil War in January 1923: the elderly seventh earl was a Free State Senator and therefore vulnerable to attack from Anti-Treaty forces. The building was subsequently reconstructed under the supervision of architect Richard Orpen but without its original third-storey Mansard roof. Having changed hands several times in the last century, it is now a wedding venue.
The drawing room ceiling in Killruddery, County Wicklow. This part of the house was designed for the tenth Earl of Meath by Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison in the 1820s. Usually the names of craftsmen employed in such tasks remain unknown but specific information has been found about this ceiling. The principal plasterer was Henry Pobje of Dublin but he didn’t work alone. Fifty years ago in 1968 when Elizabeth, Countess of Meath was repainting the room, she discovered on top of one section of the cornice the name of Simon Gilligan, together with the date 24th April 1824, which was presumably when the plasterwork was completed.
In 1718 Thomas Willcox left Exeter in Devon, and together with his wife Elizabeth, moved to the American colonies. The couple, who had nine children, settled in the Concord Township of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Here Willcox and a business partner established a paper mill in 1726, the Ivy Mills, today judged to be the second oldest such industry in the United States. It flourished over the coming decades, receiving the first order for paper used in the production of colonial currency: after 1775 the mill’s output was almost entirely devoted to producing paper for such purposes. When the American Revolution began, the Ivy Mill provided paper for currency printed first by the Continental and then the United States governments (Thomas Willcox was a friend of Benjamin Franklin). Interestingly, the Willcox family was always Roman Catholic and are believed to be the oldest members of that faith in Pennsylvania. They established a Mission chapel at the mill in 1730 and provided support for Jesuit priests travelling through this part of the country. The Ivy Mills remained in operation until 1866.
Arthur Valentine Willcox was born in February 1865, a great, great-grandson of Thomas Willcox. He was responsible for building the house seen here: Lisnabrucka, County Galway, which sits above a Connemara lake of the same name. A Philadelphia banker, Willcox was evidently a keen fisherman since in 1910 he invited Dublin architect Laurence McDonnell to design him a new lodge here. McDonnell, who early in his career had worked for both Thomas Newenham Deane and John Franklin Fuller, was responsible for designing the ‘Irish Village’ constructed at Chicago’s World Fair in 1892 before going on to enjoy a flourishing practice closer to home: he seems to have been responsible for quite a number of new buildings on Dublin’s Grafton Street. In 1908 he had undertaken extensive alterations to Ballynahinch Castle, which is only a few miles from Lisnabrucka, and this may explain why Willcox then in turn used the same architect for his own fishing lodge. The surrounding grounds were extensively landscaped during the same period: an article carried by Irish Gardening in January 1917 describes how ‘year by year the process of turning the bare slopes of the hill into wood and garden proceeds. The view from the house across the lake to Ben Lettery is probably unsurpassed by any other…’
Writing of Irish sporting lodges in Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies (Vol.VII, 2004), Patrick Boew noted that such buildings were intended ‘to accommodate a party of friends rather than a family for which a permanent residence might be designed.’ Furthermore its interior decoration ‘reflected the fact that field sports tended to be the preserve, though not the exclusive property, of men. The internal decoration of a lodge was utilitarian and sufficiently sturdy to withstand the heavy wear expected from occupants kitted for outdoor life.’ Such is the case with Lisnabrucka, which as was often the case, has a long facade (of nine bays) and appears to be of one storey with dormer windows inserted into the mansard roof. In fact, the building is more substantial, the sloping site allowing for another, lower storey on the side facing the lake, and upstairs a long corridor off which open a considerable number of bedrooms, although these – as Bowe again notes was customarily the case – are all rather small and narrow. The focus is on the main floor’s reception rooms, in particular a large entrance hall off which open the dining room, drawing room and study, along with sundry service spaces, not least a big kitchen (those sportsmen had substantial appetites). The plain rendered exterior is relieved by a series of concrete columns with Ionic capitals, the whole centred on a door with Tuscan columns supporting a pediment. Lisnabrucka was built at a time when radical social and political change seemed unlikely, but within a decade Ireland would be a fundamentally different country making the construction, or even survival, of such places highly unlikely. This one endured and over the past century, both inside and out has changed very little. As a result it can be deemed a rare surviving example of the Edwardian sporting lodge.