And in 2013…

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…The Irish Georgian Society is due to move into its new headquarters on Dublin’s South William Street. This building, the City Assembly House, is of great historical significance: it includes the oldest purpose-built exhibition gallery in Ireland and Britain. Dulwich Art Gallery was only constructed in 1817 whereas work began on the City Assembly House in 1766. Yet until recently its importance was almost unknown and certainly uncelebrated. Even today, hundreds of pedestrians pass by without knowing anything of the structure, or its elegant interiors. This will change once the IGS is installed.
The origins of the City Assembly House lie with a short-lived organisation called the Society of Artists in Ireland. An idealistic venture, its purpose was to increase awareness of and appreciation for the visual arts and for its indigenous practitioners, many of whom believed they had to move to London to receive sufficient notice. So in February 1765, the Society organised an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture, held in Napper’s Great Room on George’s Lane, on the north side of the Liffey. There were 88 exhibits, including work by the likes of John Butts (who would die that same year) and Robert Hunter (fl.1748-1780).

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The debut exhibition was such a success that a month later the decision was reached to build a permanent home for the Society. The site chosen for the new premises was taken on a long lease from Maurice Coppinger, whose name is commemorated by Coppinger Row which runs down the 110 feet side elevation of the City Assembly House; its three-bay frontage of 44 feet on South William Street rises three storeys over basement with a weathered rusticated ground floor below mellow brick. On the other side of Coppinger Row stands the well-known Powerscourt House, built a decade after the City Assembly House as a town residence for the third Viscount Powerscourt and now a shopping mall.
The driving forces behind the Society of Artists’ endeavour were carver Richard Cranfield and sculptor Simon Vierpyl, both of whom combined creativity with entrepreneurship, since they also worked as speculative property developers. But within a short time Vierpyl had ceded his interest in the scheme to Cranfield who was thereafter the building’s sole owner. As so often is the case, we do not know who was responsible for the design of the City Assembly House, although one possibility is that Oliver Grace (dates likewise unknown) was involved in some way, since in the Society’s 1768 show he submitted a drawing of ‘An elevation, proposed as a front to the Exhibition Room.’ It is also speculated that Grace worked on both the designs for St John’s Cathedral in Cashel, County Tipperary and Lyons, County Kildare, the house built at the very end of the 18th century for Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry.

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Naturally the principal space in the City Assembly House is its exhibition gallery, a top-lit octagon 40 feet wide and 33 feet high. This shape of room had been popular for spaces used to display works of art ever since Bernardo Buontalenti designed the Tribuna in Florence’s Uffizi Palace in the late 1580s. It was also used on several occasions in buildings by the 18th century Scottish architect Robert Adam, not least the original London premises of auctioneer James Christie on Pall Mall, begun the same year as the City Assembly House. An octagon not only permits more hanging space but also makes viewing of diverse works easier since they are divided between a greater number of walls than would be the case in a cube.
Initially the Society of Artists enjoyed considerable success: having shown just 88 works of art in its first exhibition, by 1780 that number had risen to 214, with every painter and sculptor of note during this period featured. But then the organisation dissolved into rancour and internal feuding, which is so often the case in Ireland. So the building’s owner, Richard Cranfield, had to find alternative uses for the property and following his death in 1809, the leasehold was sold on to Dublin Corporation which used the City Assembly House’s gallery as its meeting chamber until moving into City Hall (formerly the Royal Exchange) on Dame Street in the 1850s. Thereafter the building on South William Street served a variety of purposes, most recently as Dublin’s Civic Museum until that was closed a decade ago.

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Now the Irish Georgian Society, which has a long tradition of working to ensure the future of Ireland’s architectural heritage, has assumed responsibility for the City Assembly House and for ensuring the building as a vibrant future fully reflecting the dynamism of its original developers. At the moment the building is encased in scaffolding and undergoing extensive restoration, during which all kinds of discoveries about its original form are being made; some especially charming decorative features lost for decades are coming to light and will be given due attention. Both the exhibition gallery and the rooms in front, the two linked by a staircase winding towards a glazed oval dome, will once more become known by and accessible to the public. This will ensure that the City Assembly House’s importance in the history of 18th century Dublin will be duly celebrated and the building become a destination for all tourists interested in learning more about the city’s most enterprising era. The IGS’s aspiration is that the City Assembly House’s doors open during spring 2013. The Irish Aesthete hopes everyone will enjoy similarly momentous events in the year ahead.

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If you would like to know more about the City Assembly House or the Irish Georgian Society and its work, please visit the organisation’s website: www.igs.ie

Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been?*

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Located midway between Slane and Drogheda, and immediately north of the river Boyne Dowth is today known as the site of one of a number of important Neolithic passage tombs in County Meath, others in its immediate vicinity including Newgrange and Knowth. But Dowth deserves to be renowned also for an important mid-18th century house which is due to be auctioned at the end of January.
Dowth Hall dates from c.1760 and was built for John, Viscount Netterville (1744-1826). His family, of Anglo-Norman origin, had been settled in the area since at least the 12th century: in 1217 Luke Netterville was selected to be Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. That religious streak remained with them and come the 16th century Reformation the Nettervilles remained determinedly Roman Catholic. For this adherence some of them suffered greatly; when Drogheda fell to Oliver Cromwell in September 1649 the Jesuit priest Robert Netterville was captured and tortured, subsequently dying of the injuries sustained. Nevertheless, the Nettervilles survived, and even acquired a viscouncy. They also held onto their estates, one of a number of families – the Plunketts of Killeen Castle and the Prestons of Gormanston spring to mind – who retained both their religious faith and their lands, thereby disproving the idea that Catholics automatically suffered displacement during the Penal era.

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The sixth Viscount was only aged six on the death of his father, the latter dismissed by Mrs Delaney as ‘A fop and a fool, but a lord with a tolerable estate, who always wears fine clothes’ and otherwise only notable for having been indicted the year before his son’s birth for the murder of a valet (he was afterwards honourably acquitted by the House of Lords).
The young Lord Netterville was raised by his widowed mother and spent much time in Dublin where the family owned a fine house at 29 Upper Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. The old castle in Dowth seems to have fallen into ruin and so a few years after coming of age Viscount Netterville undertook to construct a new house on his Meath estate.
As is so often the case, information about the architect responsible for Dowth Hall is scanty. The common supposition is that the building was designed by George Darley (1730-1817), who had been employed for this purpose by Lord Netterville in Dublin where he was also the architect of a number of other houses. And indeed from the exterior Dowth Hall, rusticated limestone ground floor and tall ashlar first floor with windows alternately topped by triangular and segmental pediments, looks like an Italianate town palazzo transported into the Irish countryside; not least thanks to its plain sides, the house seems more attuned to the streets of Milan than the rich pasturelands of Meath.

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The real delight of Dowth lies in its extravagantly decorated interiors, where a master stuccadore has been allowed free hand. The drawing room (originally dining room) is especially fanciful with rococo scrolls and tendrils covering wall panels and the ceiling’s central light fitting suspended from the claws of an eagle around which flutter other birds. None of the other ground floor rooms quite match this boldness but they all contain superlative plaster ornamentation, with looped garlands being a notable feature of the library. Again, the person responsible for this work is unknown, but on the basis of comparative similarities with contemporary stuccowork at 86 St Stephen’s Green in Dublin (on which George Darley is supposed to have worked) Dowth Hall’s decoration is usually attributed to Robert West (died 1790).
Although not as extensive, there is even a certain amount of plasterwork decoration in the main bedrooms on the first floor, which is most unusual. And the house still retains its original chimneypieces (that in the entrance hall even has its Georgian basket grate), along with fine panelled doors and other elements from the property’s original construction. This makes it of enormous importance, since many other similar buildings underwent refurbishment and modernisation in the 19th century during which they lost older features.

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There are reasons why Dowth Hall has survived almost unaltered since first built 250 years ago. The sixth Viscount Netterville, somewhat eccentric, fell into dispute with the local priest and was banned from the chapel on his own land; in retaliation, he built a ‘tea house’ on top of the Neolithic tomb from which he claimed to follow religious services through a telescope. But then he seems to have given up living at Dowth and moved back to Dublin. He never married and on dying at the age of 82 left a will with no less than nine codicils. One of these insisted that the Dowth estate go to whoever inherited the title, but it took eight years and a lot of litigation for the rightful heir, a distant cousin, to establish his claim. He did so at considerable cost and so, despite marrying an heiress, was obliged to offer Dowth for sale; the last Lord Netterville, another remote cousin, died also without heirs in 1882 and the title became extinct. Meanwhile Dowth was finally bought from the Chancery Court in 1850 by Richard Gradwell, younger son of a wealthy Catholic family from Lancashire. His heirs continued to live in the house for a century, but then sold up in the early 1950s when the place changed hands again. It did so one more time around twenty years later when acquired by two local bachelor farmers who moved into Dowth Hall. Following their respective deaths (the second at the start of last year), a local newspaper reported that the siblings had gone ‘to Drogheda every Saturday night, would attend the Fatima novena at 7.30pm then would walk over West Street to see what was going on, although they never took a drink or went to pubs.’
Now Dowth Hall is for sale, and there must be concern that it finds a sympathetic new owner because the house is in need of serious attention. It comes with some 420 acres of agricultural land, which means a sale is assured but that could be to the building’s disadvantage: it might fall into further desuetude if the farm alone was of interest to a purchaser. Too many instances of this have occurred in the past and it must not be allowed to happen here. One feels there ought to be some kind of vetting process to ensure prospective buyers demonstrate sufficient appreciation of the house. Only somebody with the same vision and flair as the sixth Lord Netterville should be permitted to acquire Dowth Hall.
This last image is taken from Georgian Mansions in Ireland by Thomas Sadleir and Page Dickinson published in 1915.

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*From a poem by John Betjeman, written after he had visited Ireland as an Oxford undergraduate and met the last surviving members of the family responsible for building Dowth Hall.

A Template for Temples

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Birr, County Offaly is one of Ireland’s most perfectly planned towns. From 1817 onwards St John’s Mall was developed in an easterly direction by local landlord, the second Earl of Rosse. In 1833 at mid-point between two terraces of houses on the mall he built this impeccably simple, single-storey limestone Ionic-porticoed temple to commemorate his second son, the Hon John Clere Parsons, who had died five years earlier of scarlet fever just days before his 26th birthday. Since then John’s Hall, as it is called, has served a variety of purposes but almost 180 years after construction the building now stands empty awaiting a new use.

Worth a Squint

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Delvin, County Westmeath is one of those small Irish towns through which it is easy to pass without paying attention to the place. In other words, except for residents it is never a point of destination. This is regrettable, because Delvin does have interest, although – again like so many small Irish towns – first impressions would not indicate that to be the case. Essentially a single straggling, untidy street Delvin lacks coherence and order, lacks the kind of communality of vision and presentation that make its equivalents in other countries so satisfying. The town has some fine buildings – there are a number of pretty early 19th century houses – but just as many, if not more, that destroy whatever chance Delvin might have of detaining visitors.
Those prospective visitors would be interested to know that among the reasons they should linger is the town’s appearance in a novel which caused a sensation almost a century ago. Published in 1918, The Valley of the Squinting Windows was written by Brinsley MacNamara (1890-1963), the pseudonym of a local man, John Weldon whose father James was principal of a national school elsewhere in the county. The book is a rather overwrought tale of a young teacher seduced by a wealthy, dissipated man and how a trainee priest who has fallen in love with her avenges this outrage. It owes more to 19th century melodrama than 20th century realism, and is closer in spirit to Peyton Place than to Madame Bovary, the latter presumably being what MacNamara had hoped to emulate.

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The Valley of the Squinting Windows would likely be forgotten now but for the stir it caused on publication in Delvin. MacNamara always claimed that Garradrimna, the village in his novel, was representative of any small community in Ireland: ‘I used certain descriptions of characters and events because they were typical, were easily identified with local people and happenings. But people in Clare and Limerick have been able to do exactly the same in the case of their own villages. So could people in any county in Ireland.’ However, Garradrimna’s topographical details fix it so precisely as Delvin that locals understandably took umbrage, especially as there are really no attractive characters in the book, everyone being small-minded and greedy, obsessed with discovering and relishing the misfortunes of their neighbours. Seemingly when the novel was published there was great excitement in the region but this quickly changed to indignation once its contents were known: obviously no one thought to notice the title provided a fair warning of what lay inside. Instead of sensibly allowing the work slip into oblivion, the people of Delvin publicly burnt a copy in the centre of the village. Worse, they organised a boycott of children attending James Weldon’s school, as though he were responsible for his son’s novel. In response, Weldon brought a law suit for £4,000 against Delvin’s parish priest and seven parishioners for arranging the prohibition. He lost the case and was forced to emigrate. The Valley of the Squinting Windows has ever since been synonymous with small town pettiness.

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Among the features of Garradrimna that made it easily identifiable as Delvin are several references to a de Lacy castle at one end of the village. Just such a structure remains in place to this day, popularly believed to have been built by the Norman soldier Hugh de Lacy who came to Ireland with Henry II in 1171 and over the next 15 years erected many such structures in this part of the country. Delvin Castle is supposed to date from a decade later, after which it was given to de Lacy’s son-in-law, Gilbert de Nugent whose descendants, later Earls of Westmeath, remained in the area until 1922. Originally a massive keep with four circular corner turrets, the castle is now only half its former size, the north wall having long since gone. The owner of the abutting corner house told me his grandmother who used to live there, on being informed she was responsible for the castle and its upkeep, handed the property over to the Office of Public Works, which seems to have done little since.
Nearby, and even more dejected in appearance, is St Mary’s, the former Church of Ireland church which incorporates a mid-16th century belfry into an otherwise predominantly early 19th century building. Deconsecrated and unroofed in 1963, the building and graveyard have recently undergone refurbishment at the hands of industrious residents, which was necessary for its well-being but has had the unintentional effect of removing much of the site’s romantic charm.

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Goodness knows, otherwise romantic charm is hard to discover in Delvin; opposite the stretch occupied by castle and church, for example, a large site is occupied by a private house presumably dating from the 1970s, never attractive and now an derelict eyesore.
At the other end of the town stands the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption, unlike its Anglican counterpart still very much in use, designed by George Ashlin in 1873 and described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan as ‘an accomplished small-scale essay in French Gothic’, although one imagines the French original would not be surrounded by quite so much tarmac. In fictional guise it also appears in The Valley of the Squinting Windows.
MacNamara had little good to say about Garradrimna/Delvin, damning not just the local populace but also the physical appearance of the village itself, describing it as mean and fly-blown, with ugly houses. No doubt the resident population today is quite different to that he castigated: there is even an annual Delvin Garradrimna Book Fair. But it remains the case that the novel was as much a condemnation of place as people. MacNamara’s observations on how Delvin looked – and still looks – have yet to be addressed. If that happened, even visitors unfamiliar with The Valley of the Squinting Windows would be encouraged to linger for longer than is now the case.

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Curtain Up – Again

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Until recently it was believed that the Gaiety on South King Street was Dublin’s oldest extant theatre premises. However, earlier this year another, more long-established site reopened for business 350 years after first doing so. In the mid-1630s, the Scottish-born translator, cartographer and impresario John Ogilby moved to Ireland where he became tutor to the children of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford who was then the country’s Lord Deputy. Thanks to this patronage, Ogilby received the royal appointment of Master of the Revels and opened a theatre on Werburgh Street in 1637. The rise of the Puritans and the outbreak of war in Ireland forced this venture to close after four years, and the departure of Ogilby not long afterwards.
Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 he returned to Dublin and two years later received permission to open a new theatre in the city. Although designated the Theatre Royal by special patent (the first such title granted outside London), it was commonly known as Smock Alley after its location, and remains remembered as such to this day. Smock Alley lies in the midst of an area called Temple Bar, now best known for a superfluity of bars and clubs and the hordes of youthful drinkers that these attract.

Prior to the development of Essex Quay in the 1720s Smock Alley Theatre would have lain almost on the banks of the Liffey and this caused various problems: in 1670 and again in 1701 the upper galleries collapsed causing death and injury among the audience, and following another such disaster in 1734 the premises were largely rebuilt to the design of local architect Michael Wills, with increased capacity. There followed what might be considered the theatre’s golden age, during which time it was managed by Thomas Sheridan, godson of Dean Swift and father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan who went on to have a stellar career as playwright and poet.
During this period some of the finest performers in Ireland and England appeared on the stage of the Smock Alley Theatre including Peg Woffington, Colley Cibber, Spranger Barry and Charles Macklin; it was here that David Garrick, the most famous actor of the 18th century, first played Hamlet. But other fare than plays was also offered: a surviving notice for May 1754 advertises that after the performance of Charles Johnson’s The Country Lasses, an equilibrist (otherwise known as a trapeze artist) called Mr Stuart ‘will play very curiously with a fork and an orange such as was never attempted by any other person. He will also stand on his head, and quit the wire entirely with his hands when in full swing, and discharge two fire wheels off both his heels at the same time.’ One suspects health and safety regulations would not permit such a display in our own age.
Smock Alley had already seen off various rivals when in 1758 the wonderfully named Spranger Barry, who had appeared on its stage, opened his own theatre on nearby Crow Street and managed to have the Royal Patent transferred to his premises. This proved fatal to the older establishment’s welfare, and within twenty years it had closed for good. The building subsequently became a whiskey store, and was serving this purpose when an engraving of it, seen at the top of this piece, appeared in The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1789 (the section of map, incidentally, comes from that of Dublin produced by John Rocque in 1756).

So it remained until 1811 when the former theatre was acquired by a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Michael Blake who worked with architect John Taylor to convert it into a church, SS. Michael and John, which opened for services in 1815. This was some 14 years before the achievement of Catholic Emancipation and it was therefore hazardous of Fr Blake to set up a bell rung several times daily to summon his congregation and to advise them of the Angelus. Seemingly a city alderman instituted proceedings against the priest for this breach of the law, but dropped the action on hearing the case was to be defended by a talented young lawyer called Daniel O’Connell.
One might imagine the Irish Catholic Church would cherish a building so important in its historic struggle to achieve the right of freedom to worship. However, once the institution noticed attendance numbers for services dropping it had no qualms in deconsecrating the premises and abandoning all further interest in the building’s future. The next organisation responsible for the old structure treated it with even more disdain: in 1996 Temple Bar Properties decided to convert the site into a Viking Adventure Centre. This ill-conceived enterprise inevitably closed in 2002 but not before wreaking havoc on the place, stripping out its galleried interior and the plaster from the walls, and inserting an additional floor.

In the intervening years, the property has been thoroughly surveyed by archaeologists who discovered that large sections of the church were actually parts of the original Smock Alley Theatre, although a comparison between the exterior as seen in the 1789 engraving and as it looks today would have indicated this was most likely the case. Earlier in the year, exactly 350 years since it first opened as a theatre, the building reverted to that purpose, thanks to the enterprise of Patrick Sutton and his team at the Gaiety School of Acting. While this initiative is a cause for rejoicing, aesthetically the premises’ problems – created by the mid-1990s remodelling – remain unresolved. Due to the division of the interior into two floors, the main 220-seat theatre has had to be fitted into the lower area and feels somewhat claustrophobic (although, should the production fail to hold the audience’s attention, exposed walls offer a good sense of the structure’s various alterations). Meanwhile the upper room is almost as oppressive due to lack of space between interpolated floor and elaborate neo-Perpendicular ceiling, incidentally the only part of the original decoration to survive Temple Bar Properties’ assault. The ideal would be for the building to accommodate, as was originally the case, a single auditorium and stage. Although that seems unlikely in the short term, the fact that Smock Alley Theatre has now reopened for business suggests the final curtain has not yet come down on this drama.

Brought to Book

Back in 1980 photographer Simon Marsden published a book on Irish country houses with the self-explanatory title In Ruins. It quickly sold out and has since become a bibliophiles’ favourite. Many more such works by other photographers subsequently followed, so many that one began to gain the impression of vultures gathering to feast on a corpse even before the death certificate had been issued. Sometimes it seems as though the fewer historic properties of worth that Ireland possesses, the more they will be appreciated: like the Dodo, their value will only be fully understood when the last one has fallen into irreversible ruin.
The crumbling Irish house is a staple of our national literature (think the wondrous Molly Keane, together with many others before and since) and so too are books which apparently thrive on depicting yet another building in terminal decay. It is easy to understand the appeal of these publications, essentially romantic and inspired by a concept of the past that helps to make illusory television series like Downton Abbey so popular. It is a vision of history that regards old buildings, and in particular Ireland’s great houses, as having the same kind of use-by date as found on supermarket food, after which they can serve no further purpose. According to this erroneous attitude they should be allowed, if not actively encouraged, to fall down, thereby permitting a myth to be constructed in their absence.

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These somewhat melancholic thoughts were inadvertently inspired by an admirable new publication, Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change. Author David Hicks discusses 24 properties spread across the four provinces and has had the original idea of featuring old photographs of the houses in their heyday alongside images of how they look now. The comparisons are rarely kind, although not always as Hicks intended. He is, for example, more generous than really ought to be the case about Adare Manor, County Limerick and Farnham in County Cavan, both converted into hotels with a singular want of sympathetic taste. And he includes Powerscourt, County Wicklow which is a travesty of restoration and deserves nothing other than condemnation. This really is an instance where the ruin was preferable to what has since been done.
That is the criticism out of the way, because otherwise Hicks’ book merits congratulation, not least thanks to texts which are both well-informed and well-written, a rare phenomenon in this genre where writers can display scant interest in researching the history of buildings they present. As a rule he is sympathetic but not sentimental, clearly passionate about his subject but not (perhaps with the exception of Powerscourt) to the exclusion of objectivity.

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And the photographs are just fascinating, albeit occasionally in a ghoulish way. The first picture at the top of this piece, and the two that follow, are of Downhill, County Londonderry, the immense palace built on a cliff top overlooking the Atlantic by that notable eccentric Frederick Hervey, Earl-Bishop of Derry (1730-1803). Admirers of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire may be interested to know that the Duke’s long-time mistress (and eventual second wife) was the Earl-Bishop’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Foster. Downhill was aptly named: within fifty years of Hervey’s death it started to go irreversibly down hill, not least thanks to a disastrous fire in 1851 which gutted much of the interior and destroyed some of the finest contents. Although rebuilt twenty years later, by the early 1950s the building had been dismantled; it is now in the care of the National Trust, as is the ravishing Mussenden Temple, the adjacent domed rotunda also built by the Earl-Bishop.
The next two photographs show a house at the other end of the country, Castle Bernard in County Cork. Originally called Castle Mahon and part of the territory controlled by the O’Mahonys, in the 17th century it was acquired by an English settler, Francis Bernard whose descendants became Earls of Bandon; they greatly extended the property, with major rebuilding taking place in the early 19th century. Despite a jumble of styles, the eventual result looks charming in old photographs. In June 1921 the fourth Earl and his wife were forced out of the castle by a branch of the IRA before the building was set on fire. Lord Bandon, a septuagenarian, was then kidnapped and held hostage for three weeks before being released. Seeing the gutted shell of Castle Bernard, his niece wrote ‘The ruin is absolute and all one can do is wander across the mass of debris in those precious rooms.’

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Finally, above is Clonbrock, County Galway, a house needlessly lost within living memory. The estate belonged to the long-established Dillon family who built Clonbrock in the 1780s to replace a previous residence which had been burnt, seemingly by a firework let off to celebrate the birth of the then-owner’s heir. Various additions, such as the Doric portico and the two low wings, were made during the first half of the 19th century but the central block remained unaltered, notable for the refined neo-classical plasterwork of its main rooms. The Dillons were ardent photographers and their archive today provides one of the best sources of information for life in the Irish country house.
Successive generations of the family lived at Clonbrock until 1976 when economic circumstances forced the sale of house and contents. The building was then placed on the market but despite various statements of interest it failed to find a buyer and in 1984 was destroyed by fire; I remember at the time meeting a German family who had hoped to take over Clonbrock and were dismayed by what occurred. Now it stands as yet another testament to our want of aesthetic appreciation – or maybe to our perverse preference for romantic ruins…

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Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change is published by Collins Press

The Abomination of Desolation

Lying two miles south of the town of Claremorris, County Mayo, Castle MacGarret was associated with the Browne family for more than 350 years. The present house has a complicated history. The original castle stood closer to the river Robe but was found to be unsafe and abandoned towards the end of the 17th century; its ruins, smothered in ivy, can still be seen. Meanwhile, a new residence was built further from the water and served successive generations until largely destroyed by fire in 1811. A contemporary report in The Gentleman’s Magazine noted the blaze had originated in the kitchen ‘and the Cook perished.’
Following this disaster, the house’s stables were converted for use as a house. The architect Sir Richard Morrison drew up various plans for a new, elaborately gothic building but none of these was executed, presumably because Castle MacGarret’s then-owner Dominick Browne was too busy realising his political ambitions. Between 1814 and 1836 he managed to represent County Mayo for the Whig interest in seven Parliaments. This enterprise was his undoing since he was obliged to spend a fortune on each election to ensure success; one of them is said to have cost him £40,000 of which £600 alone went on lemons for whiskey punch.

As a reward for his political diligence, Dominick Browne was made a Privy Councillor of Ireland in 1834 and two years later created an Irish peer as Baron Oranmore of Carrabrowne Castle and Baron Browne of Castle Macgarret. But an Irish title did not automatically carry the right to sit in the House of Lords at Westminster and he therefore energetically lobbied for an English peerage. Three British Prime Ministers turned down his request, the reason being they had heard the newly-ennobled Lord Oranmore and Browne was on the verge of bankruptcy. This he denied, even though his debts amounted to an astonishing £199,320. The Irish Great Famine of 1845-8 completed his ruin and in a series of sales during the first half of the following decade, the majority of the Browne lands, including a large portion of Galway city, were sold through the Encumbered Estates Court.
Having lost most of their land, and therefore income, the Brownes were in no position to improve their accommodation. Finally in the early 1900s the third Lord Oranmore and Browne employed Richard Caulfield Orpen to remodel and extend the old stables. An older brother of the painter Sir William Orpen, this architect has the questionable honour of being credited with introducing the bungalow into Ireland.

Although claims have been made for the house as exemplifying Arts and Crafts principles Orpen’s revamped Castle MacGarret cannot be deemed particularly alluring, at least on the exterior. Its cement-rendered form lacks grace, the two irregular wings that jut out to create a forecourt each featuring a small crenellated tower as though to justify the building’s use of the title castle. The interior is more successful, beginning with the staircase hall that rises to a first floor gallery, the walls carrying plaster swags in which the Browne arms are quartered with those of heiresses the family had married. The well-proportioned drawing and dining rooms have elaborate neoclassical stucco ceilings copied from those designed by James Wyatt for Leinster House in Dublin. The drawing room contained a notable collection of Meissen porcelain, the hall a large number of miniatures by Anne Mee. The library, previously the billiard room, had a beamed ceiling and walls lined with mahogany bookcases. Hicks of Dublin made the chimneypieces while the panelling came from Crowthers of London. The cost of the refurbishment was £21,422.7s.6d.

In the early 1920s Castle MacGarret survived the War of Independence and the Civil War, although the house was raided by armed men one night in May 1922. The following year it was occupied by Free State troops who only left in June 1924. Despite being responsible for its rebuilding, understandably Lord Oranmore and Browne preferred to live in England, where he bought the Palladian Mereworth Castle in Kent. However, following his death in 1927, the next Lord Oranmore and Browne returned to Castle MacGarret, remaining there for more than thirty years.
While married to heiress Oonagh Guinness he had access to ample funds for the house’s upkeep, but after the couple divorced in 1950 it became a struggle to make the place economically viable. Eventually he had to abandon the struggle. In July 1960 the contents of Castle MacGarret, everything from a pair of old Waterford glass decanters to a Chippendale mahogany side table, were dispersed in a four-day auction held on the premises after which Lord Oranmore and Browne moved to London.
In 1964 Castle MacGarret, along with its surrounding 1,750 acres, was bought by the Irish Land Commission for £95,000. Having parcelled out most of the estate among local farmers, the organisation offered the house and surrounding 125 acres for sale. An order of nuns, the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles, bought the place and tacked on an extension evidently inspired by the worst excesses of Soviet social housing. Castle MacGarret was run as a retirement home until 2005 when, at the height of Ireland’s economic boom, the canny nuns sold house and 120 acres for some €5 million to a business consortium. The latter’s members intended to convert the house into a hotel and spa. That plan never came to fruition and Castle Macgarret now sits empty, a prey to the damp that seeps through every missing slate. So another part of Ireland’s architectural and social heritage disappears forever into already-saturated ground.

Photographs by Cosmo Brockway

Perfection is the Child of Time

Russborough, County Wicklow on a fresh morning earlier this week. Built in the 1740s to the design of Richard Castle, at almost 700 feet it has the longest facade of any house in Ireland, the entirety fronted in granite from a local quarry. Even after some 270 years the stone has kept its crispness, as can be seen in the march of parapet urns, but mellowed through exposure to the elements, bringing Russborough to a perfection only achieved by the passage of sufficient time.

Music Sent Up to God

For many centuries the Plunketts were among the principal families of County Meath, thanks to a judicious alliance made by one of their ancestors. In 1403 Sir Christopher Plunkett married Joan, daughter and heiress of Sir Lucas Cusack, and through her acquired extensive lands in the regions of Dunsany and Killeen, becoming Lord of the latter which was in turn left to his eldest son. The descendants of that line subsequently became Earls of Fingall, a title which only died out with the death of the twelth holder in 1984. Meanwhile, Sir Christopher’s second son received Dunsany Castle, where his descendant, Randal, 21st Baron Dunsany, now lives.
Not having an estate to inherit, Sir Christopher’s third son Sir Thomas Plunkett moved to London where he became a successful lawyer. Eventually he returned to Ireland and was appointed the country’s Lord Chief Justice. At some point before his death in 1471 he ordered the construction of a church dedicated to St Lawrence at Rathmore, County Meath on land adjacent to the castle where he lived. Here he was buried in a tomb, together with his wife Marion after her own death some years later. She had been the heiress of Rathmore, but it was not in her possession at the time of the Plunketts’ marriage. An old story, most likely apocryphal but nonetheless charming, tells how thanks to a song she gained a husband and regained her ancestral lands.

Marion, or as she is sometimes called Mary Ann, Plunkett was the daughter of Sir Christopher Cruise (original spelling Cruys) who late in life had married, much to the displeasure of several nephews waiting to inherit their uncle’s estates. Disappointment turned to wrath when the young Lady Cruise became pregnant and one evening while the couple were out walking at another of their properties, Cruicetown, they were set upon by a gang of assassins. Sir Christopher was struck down, but his wife managed to run back to the castle and barricade herself inside with the help of loyal followers.
Later that night Lady Cruise had her husband buried by torchlight and encouraged a rumour her absence from the occasion was due to terminal illness. As the funeral was taking place she gathered all the family plate and jewels and had them sunk in strong chests in a little lake at Cruicetown. Together with the Cruise deeds, she then had herself placed in a coffin (holes bored into its side so that she could breathe) which was brought to Rathmore. Arriving there Lady Cruise got out of the coffin, into which she put more valuable plate and organised for this to be buried in a nearby graveyard. Meanwhile, she slipped away to Dublin and from there took a boat to London.

Soon after arriving in London, Lady Cruise gave birth to her only child, a girl she named Marion. For some years mother and daughter were able to survive on various items of jewellery brought from Ireland, but once all these had been sold the pair became so poor that they had to earn a living by washing laundry on the banks of the Thames. One day the able young lawyer Sir Thomas Plunkett was passing close to the river’s edge and heard a young girl singing in Irish. The opening words of her song, both a roll-call of the former Cruise estates and a prayer for divine intervention, ran as follows:
‘Ah ! Blessed Mary ! hear me singing,
On this cold stone, mean labours plying
Yet Rathmore’s heiress might I name me
And broad lands rich and many claim me.’
Understanding the language in which she sang, Sir Thomas stopped and spoke to Marion Cruise, who brought him to her mother where he was shown the deeds to the family estates. Not long afterwards he married the putative heiress and on the couple’s return to Ireland was able to reclaim all the lands stolen by her cousins. His mother-in-law remembered where the old plate and valuables had been hidden and this added to the Plunketts’ wealth.
It may be for this reason that the couple decided to build a church next to their castle, in thanksgiving for the return of what had been thought forever lost. Built of limestone rubble, it has a number of fine features, such as the large east window with its curvilinear tracery and a handsome belltower (now roofless) in the south-west corner. Diagonally opposite, in what had been the sacristy, you can find the Plunkett tomb, moved from the body of the church for better preservation. While the armoured Sir Thomas, his feet resting on a recumbent dog, has survived the intervening five centuries, his wife has since lost her head. If only that were the sum total of the family’s losses. In the 17th century, this branch of the Plunketts stayed loyal to the Catholic faith and ultimately had their lands and lives taken from them by Oliver Cromwell. In 1654 Rathmore and much of the surrounding area came into the possession of John Bligh whose descendants, later Earls of Darnley, continued to be significant landowners here until the early 1900s. Today Rathmore Castle is an ivy-shrouded ruin and the church serves as no more than a picturesque backdrop for grazing cattle.

Nature Full of Poetry

‘In this sequester’d, wild, romantic dell
Where nature loves in solitude to dwell,
Who would expect ‘midst such a lonely park
The charms of fancy and the plans of art,
Whilst the neat mansion, formed with simple taste,
Amidst a wilderness for comfort plac’d,|
Adorns the scene and hospitably shews
The seat of pleasure and serene repose.’
So in 1807 wrote, Joseph Atkinson, an army officer-turned-playwright, of Luggala, County Wicklow. For more than 200 years, this secluded valley tucked deeo into the Wicklow Mountains has been the subject of many such encomia, generations of visitors captivated by what they have found there.
Yet until the onset of the Romantic era at the end of the 18th century Luggala, along with much of the surrounding region, lay unoccupied, untended and largely unknown. Only following its discovery around 1787 by Peter La Touche, a rich banker in search of seclusion, did Luggala come to public notice. Having remained free from the intervention of man for millennia the site, La Touche wisely realised, demanded nothing other than a dwelling with a character to match the setting. Designed by a now-unknown architect, this is Luggala Lodge, facing Lough Tay at the other end of the valley and terminating a vista that stretches from lake shore to steep ground immediately behind. As James Brewer remarked in 1825 the building ‘is well adapted to the recluse parts of Ireland, where nature reigns in wild and mysterious majesty.’

Three years before Brewer the Rev. George Newenham Wright, a cleric with literary aspirations, published A Guide to the County of Wicklow. Several pages of the book are devoted to Luggala, the author awe-struck that the first view of the site ‘is of a bold, awful and sublime character’ and the sheer mass of mountainside closing the prospect ‘exhibiting a continued mass of naked granite to the very summit, forming the most complete representation of all that is wild, dreary and desolate in nature, and defying all attempts at innovation that the aspiring genius of man has ever dared to undertake.’ Not long afterwards, Prince Herman von Pückler-Muskau, an impoverished German aristocrat travelling through Britain and Ireland in search of a wife wealthy enough to fund his inclination towards extravagance, visited County Wicklow and afterwards reported:, ‘I reached the summit of the mountain above the magnificent valley and lake of Luggelaw, the sun gilded all the country beneath me, though the tops of the hills were yet shrouded in mist. This valley belongs to a wealthy proprietor, who has converted it into a delightful park…It is indeed a lovely spot of earth, lonely and secluded; the wood full of game, the lake full of fish and nature full of poetry.’ When American film director John Huston wrote his memoir An Open Book in 1980 he recalled the first time he had visited Luggala twenty-nine years earlier. Arriving late at night and in the dark, he had seen little. ‘The next morning at dawn I went to the window and looked out upon a scene I have never forgotten. Through pines and yews in the garden I saw, across a running stream, a field of marigolds and beyond the field – surprisingly – a white sandy beach bordering a black lake…Above the lake was a mountain of black rock rising precipitously, and on its crest – like a shawl over a piano – a profusion of purple heather. I was to go back to Luggala many times, but I’ll never forget that first impression. I was Ireland’s own from that moment.’

Luggala Lodge, wrote the Knight of Glin in 1965, is an example of ‘that special brand of eighteenth-century gothick that rejoices in little battlements, crochets, trefoil and quatrefoil windows and ogee mantelpieces: in fact, the gothick of pastrycooks and Rockingham china.’ The building observed Michael Luke some twenty years ago, shines ‘like the discarded crown of a prima ballerina.’ Bulgarian-born author Stephane Groueff who stayed in the house during the 1950s remembered it ‘looking like an illustration from a nursery book of “The Queen of Hearts”.’ And actress Anjelica Huston recalls Luggala from her childhood: ‘It was like going into a fairy tale. Descending into the dell with the ferns and the overhanging trees, the flocks of deer and the pheasants, and then coming on the magical lake with its sand made up of chips of mica.’
Diarist Frances Partridge came to stay in the early 1950s and afterwards recorded, ‘What a magical atmosphere that house had, charmingly furnished and decorated to match its style, dim lights, soft music playing and Irish voices ministering seductively to our needs.’ Sixty years later, author and critic Francis Wyndham remembers Luggala as being ‘the most romantic place I’ve ever known,’ and recalls ‘that sparkling little jewel of a house with the black lake before it.’
And here is the present custodian of Luggala, the Hon. Garech Browne, wonderfully photographed by Neil Gavin in the house’s drawing room. Like each of his predecessors, Garech has ensured the special character of this spot be preserved. Luggala today remains as it was in the time of Joseph Atkinson, ‘the seat of pleasure and serene repose.’

My new book, Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House, has now been published.