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