Pastoral scene with country house as backdrop: Ardbraccan, County Meath. The central block dates from the 1770s when it was constructed for the then-Bishop of Meath, Henry Maxwell. Visiting the place two centuries ago, the English agronomist and politician John Christian Curwen wrote that Ardbraccan ‘is a modern edifice, erected by the former Bishop on a plan of the late Dr Beaufort; which unites much internal comfort with great external beauty and simple elegance, well designed and appropriated for the residence of so considerable a dignitary of the church. The grounds are laid out with great taste, and the luxuriant growth of the trees and shrubs affords incontestable evidence of the fertility of the soil.’
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.
Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser (1980)
Photographs are of an abandoned farmhouse in County Westmeath.
Two pieces of statuary in the grounds of Ballyfin, County Laois. To the rear of the main block and flanked by obelisks, the figure of a river god reclines in a basin. The cascade behind him concludes in a Doric temple. Meanwhile in front of the house a pair of crouching sphinxes observe the arrival and departure of guests.
This page from the Dublin Penny Journal of December 5th 1835 shows the casino at Marino, Dublin completed sixty years earlier to the designs of Sir William Chambers. As discussed here before (see Casino Royale, March 25th 2013) the casino was only one of a number of buildings erected in the grounds of the first Earl of Charlemont’s estate. Close to the casino, for example, stood a tall Gothic tower known as ‘Rosamund’s Bower’ and likely designed by Johann Heinrich Muntz, a Swiss-born painter and architect encouraged by Horace Walpole to move to England where he worked with Chambers. Unfortunately Lord Charlemont’s architectural ambitions exceeded his income, leaving his heirs somewhat impoverished and resulting in the park at Marino soon falling into decay: the Dublin Penny Journal notes that Rosamund’s Bower was already in ruins and strangers seldom visited the place any more.
Ultimately all except the casino was swept away, and at the moment that building plays host to a fascinating exhibition Paradise Lost: Lord Charlemont’s Garden at Marino which is demands to be seen (and is accompanied by a very smart and informative catalogue). Next Tuesday, June 10th the Office of Public Works and the Irish Georgian Society are holding a study day in the latter’s Dublin headquarters on South William Street exploring this long-vanished parkland and its legacy. For booking and more information, please see www.igs.ie/events.
‘In an orderly country,’ chided the German travel writer and ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl after a visit to Ireland in September 1842, ‘ruins should really not be tolerated. They should be demolished either in order that the material of which they consist can be availed of in constructing new and more useful buildings, or the site that they occupy can be put to different use, or because they threaten to collapse completely and endanger human activity, or because they present an unpleasant sight.’
Kohl believed that members of ‘an orderly, vigilant and progressive human community’ should eradicate all ruins, before he went to note that, ‘In Ireland, the opposite to all this has happened, as it is unique in all of Europe for its many ruins. One finds here a plethora of ruins from all periods of history, like in no other country.’ Furthermore, he remarked, this melancholy condition was not unique to ancient buildings since ‘down to our days every century – one could say every decade – has deposited its ruins on the land. For everywhere one sees a multitude of dilapidated houses that have only recently fallen into ruin but yet seem also to have been built only recently.’
More than 170 years after Kohl made his observations, they remain pertinent: Ireland continues to be a country of ruins, many of them of recent vintage. Indeed in the last decade we have acquired a fresh crop, so to speak, of ruins thanks to the advent of ‘ghost estates’, those ill-planned, ill-sited and incomplete spatterings of houses begun during the badly-managed economic boom and then abandoned at the onset of the downturn. They join the throng of architectural decrepitude which has been so noted by visitors to Ireland over hundreds of years and yet seems to pass unnoticed by the indigenous population.
What is especially noticeable is the gratuitous abandonment of buildings for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose. This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Hence throughout the countryside one comes across a superabundance of farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness and panache could be given a fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate, which is to moulder into ruin.
Such might well have been the fate of the house seen here today, had it not been discovered a decade ago by the present owner. Located in a remote part of County Cork and originally lying at the centre of a 100-acre holding, the building dates from the late 19th/early 20th century and is in a style that had remained almost unaltered over the previous hundred years. As the American historian Kerby Miller has noted, such houses which belonged to relatively affluent farmers, tended to be ‘well-built – perhaps two-storied, with stone walls and roofs which were slated rather than thatched – and well furnished.’
Whatever furniture it once contained had long since disappeared by the time the house was rescued and restored. Unoccupied for more than half a century since the death of a previous owner, its isolation seems to have discouraged anybody else from settling there. Today that remoteness gives the place romantic appeal, as do the surrounding vistas of rolling fields on three sides of the property, the fourth offering an uninterrupted view of the Irish Sea several hundred feet below: during the summer months, the owner has been known to descend to the shore for a swim.
Aside from inaccessibility, another reason why the building would not have won widespread favour is its understated design: unlike smaller and more overtly endearing thatched cottages, the average Irish farm house was never known for superfluous embellishment. Indeed this particular example possesses an unpretentious simplicity typical of the genus. It rightly celebrates the virtues of clean, unfussy composition.
But before these could be celebrated an extensive programme of refurbishment was called for because at the time of purchase the building was close to collapse. The roof demanded immediate attention, as did walls, doors and windows. Internally the main feature to be salvaged was the old staircase although even here sections required repair and replacement. While this was going on, changes were made to the south, sea-facing front with the three existing windows lowered to create a trio of double doors opening onto a terrace flagged with limestone. More recently the terrace has been enclosed by a full-length conservatory that now serves as sitting room, dining room and, as we Irish like to say, whatever you’re having yourself. In addition the first floor plate-glass windows were changed to double sashes with glazing bars, a modification which immediately softened the house’s unadorned exterior. As was the custom with such properties, the walls are cement-rendered and then left without even a lime wash but weathered by time and exposure to the elements. Several out-buildings have also been restored, a vegetable garden created and a secure area for hens and geese devised. Otherwise the rest of the 20 acres acquired by the owner has been left in its familiar state of fields interspersed with copses of trees.
The same low-key approach has been adopted inside the house. The kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. The diningroom opposite is equally understated, with clay plaster used to cover the walls, an old oven used as open fireplace and the furnishings of plain pine. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of the two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the pictures were acquired in the same way or were painted by friends.
The result offers a model of how to convert an old farmhouse into a comfortable, smart private residence. In every county throughout Ireland, there are many similar properties sliding into what looks like inexorable decay and thus adding to our already ample list of ruins. Were Johann Georg Kohl to visit our island today, he would find little had changed since the last time he was here – except in this little corner of the country. Here, for once, a house has been saved from ruin and its character improved rather than destroyed in the process.
A not unusual sight in the Irish landscape: two bicycles leaning against the stone wall of a farm building in County Monaghan. This pair, however, appear not to have been in use of late, since one is missing its saddle and the other a tyre. Perhaps they are merely resting here until spare parts become available…
An stone urn sitting atop a double plinth closes a flight of terraces at Knockdrin, County Westmeath. In the early 19th century, the heavily-castellated Knockdrin replaced an earlier Georgian house known as High Park, and perhaps this piece of garden ornamentation is a survivor of the earlier property? Romantically entwined with ivy, it looks as though painted by Rex Whistler. (For more information about Knockdrin see Knock Knock, August 5th 2013).
A survey conducted in Northern Ireland in 2005 concluded that while there had been 40,000 thatched dwellings in the six counties half a century earlier, only 150 of these now remained. Joseph Gallagher and Greg Stevenson, authors of Traditional Cottages of County Donegal, believe the situation is no better, and very possibly worse, in that county despite it being ‘home to one of the largest surviving concentrations of such vernacular cottages in Ireland.’ They also note that ‘One of the most enduring images of Ireland and Irishness is that of the traditional rural cottage.’ In 1935 the Swedish ethnologist Dr Åke Campbell who had arried out a survey of rural housing in this country, wrote ‘the Irish peasant house never stands out in bold relief against its background but melts into it even as a tree or a rock. Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs.’ One might add that being made of natural, local materials when these dwellings are forsaken, they dissolve back into the soil from whence they came. Would that the same could be said of the bungalow which is the most common form of housing type found in rural Ireland today.
One must avoid succumbing to excessive sentimentality: despite what we perceive as its inherent charm the traditional cottage tended to be small, dark, with poor insulation and extremely limited facilities. It is understandable that anyone inhabiting such a place would wish to replace it with a more comfortable residence. Still, it remains a matter of shame and disappointment that so little has been done to ensure the conservation of our historic dwellings since their loss means part of the nation’s collective history also disappears; tellingly many of the best examples featured by Gallagher and Stevenson have been preserved in open air museums and folk parks, or else converted into holiday homes. But very many more have fallen into dereliction and this book is as much a lament as a celebration of Donegal’s traditional cottages. The book is splendidly produced and illustrated, and with a text both informative and engaging. It also serves as an invaluable record of what still survives, but may not do so for much longer…
Traditional Cottages of County Donegal is published by Under the Thatch Ltd. For further information, see: http://www.underthethatch.co.uk/book
A solitary obelisk standing on raised ground in what was once the parkland of Dangan Castle, County Meath. Dangan was the seat of Richard Wesley, created first Baron Mornington in 1746. He spent a great deal of money improving his house and grounds, and Bishop Pococke in his 1752 Tour in Ireland described the former as being ‘situated on a most beautiful flat, with an Amphitheater of hills rising round it, one over another, in a most beautiful manner; at the lower end is a very large piece of water, at one corner of which is an Island, it is a regular fortification, there is a ship a sloop and boats on the water, and a yard for building; the hill beyond it, is improved into a beautiful wilderness: on a round hill near the house is a Temple, and the hills round are adorned with obelisks: Pillars and some buildings, altogether the most beautiful thing I ever saw.’ Mrs Delany also visited Dangan several times, being godmother to Mornington’s heir Garret, future first Earl of Mornington and, in turn, the father of Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington who likewise spent much of his childhood here. Yet before the end of the century the family had sold the estate, the house was accidentally destroyed by fire and in 1841 J. Stirling Coyne could write ‘The noble woods, too, which adorned the demesne, have shared in the general destruction; and all the giants of the sylvan scene have been prostrated by the ruthless axe.’ Today there remain few signs of Dangan’s former splendour other than this obelisk rising in the midst of a field, and another not far away, the latter restored of late with help from the Meath branch of An Taisce.