A Transformation



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.


Complying with Strict Conditions of Conservation?



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?

Just Perfection


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.

Not Such a BelView


Writing of agriculture and manufacturing in County Offaly in 1801, Sir Charles Coote noted that the linen industry then thrived, with several local landowners ‘who keep looms employed, but do not bleach. Mr Holmes of Prospect and Mr Armstrong of Belview are the most extensive manufacturers, and both have large greens, but they only bleach their own linen, their [sic] being bleach yards for public accommodation.’ Almost twenty years later Peter Besnard, Inspector-General for Trade and Manufacture of Linen and Hemp in Ireland, produced a report in which he commented on Offaly: ‘The Manufacturing and Bleaching branches of the Linen Business are carried on in this county as usual, particularly in the neighbourhood of Clara and Charlestown; in the latter place, a new Linen Hall has been built by Andrew Armstong Esq. of Belview, whose family have long been supporters and encouragers of the Linen Trade. Mr Armstrong has built this Hall at his own expense, and likewise gives a premium for the best Web sold in it; and I cannot avoid remarking, that wherever premiums have been established, and judiciously applied, they have been productive of much benefit.’





The Armstrong family appears to have settled in this part of the country in the 18th century, one John Armstrong (born 1748) marrying Jane Holmes, whose family lived nearby in a house called Prospect (still standing). He married a second time and had a son Andrew Armstrong, the man mentioned by both Sir Charles Coote and Peter Besnard as being active in the linen industry. A large range of now-derelict buildings on ground below Belview testify to the one-time importance of this business, in the 18th and early 19th centuries by far the most commercially viable in Ireland. From the early 1700s onwards Irish linen was imported duty free to England and to the American colonies, so that eventually this one product accounted for around fifty per cent of Ireland’s total exports. It is understandable that so many entrepreneurial spirits became involved in the business and, if they managed their concern sufficiently well, grew rich, as did the Armstrongs. As was so often the case, they gradually climbed the social scale, moving away from the commercial class to become landed gentry. John Herbert Armstrong, for example, who inherited Belview in the mid-19th century , joined the army and served as a major in the Royal Tyrone Fusiliers. He further cemented his gentry status by marrying Eliza Catherine Lowry whose family, related to the Earls of Belmore, lived at Pomeroy House, County Tyrone. Their son in turn married Emily Theodosia Blacker-Douglas whose family were large landowners (with over 8,000 acres in County Kerry) and lived in Elm Park, outside Armagh. However, after selling their estate in 1912 under the Irish Land Act, the Armstrongs left Belview, which was subsequently leased to a variety of tenants.





Located on the border of Counties Offaly and Westmeath, Belview is a substantial house, the front portion of which dates from the second half of the 18th century. To the rear is an older L-shaped building which looks to have been adapted into a service wing when the newer section was added. The latter featured the usual layout of the period, with a drawing room, dining room and morning room/office opening off a central entrance hall on the ground floor: traces of neo-classical plasterwork survive in some of these spaces. Outside the east-facing façade is of five bays, with a Venetian window on the first floor. Below a short flight of stone steps led to a tripartite limestone doorcase with engaged Doric columns and an open pediment. The house testifies to the Armstrongs’ wish to identify themselves with the local gentry, as well as to the wealth that could be accumulated through the linen trade. A folly built in the form of a monastic round tower by Andrew Armstrong in 1817 and now buried in the nearby woodland, likewise provides evidence of the family’s social ambitions. The house was abandoned some decades ago and is now a roofless ruin.

Important Remains

In Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976) Kiltullagh, County Galway was described by the late Maurice Craig as having formerly been very handsome, thanks to its ‘gigantic paneled chimney-stacks and (as can still be traced) a very steep roof…To judge by the provision of pistol-loops it must have been built early in the 18th century or even earlier…Even in its present state it can be seen to be a building of quality. The pistol-loops commanding the entrance are conspicuous.’ Likewise, the reference to Kiltullagh in Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland (1988) noted that it was an ‘important, late seventeenth-century or early eighteenth-century, two-storey house. The very high chimney-stacks have sunk panels, and there are pistol-loops in the basement which is most unusual for a house of this period. The house which is now a ruin is a most impressive example of an early virtually undefended house and should be preserved from further depredation.’




Kiltullagh belonged to a branch of the d’Arcy family, one of the Tribes of Galway, the mercantile clans that ran the city during the Middle Ages. Like other members of the same milieu, from the early 16th century onwards they gradually acquired parcels of land in the countryside and gradually metamorphosed into gentry, although this process was not without setbacks. The lawyer Patrick d’Arcy was a key figure on the Roman Catholic side during the Confederate Wars of 1641-52, in the former year writing his Argument which insisted that ‘no parliament but an Irish one can properly legislate for Ireland’ and later helping to draw up a Constitution for the Confederacy. In the aftermath of that side’s defeat, he lost his lands but the greater part of these were restored to his heir James d’Arcy: the family owned over 18,750 acres – divided between Kiltullagh and an estate to the west around Clifden – but all this was lost in the aftermath of the Great Famine when the property was sold by the Encumbered Estates Court. (The last of the family to own the property, Hyacinth d’Arcy, subsequently became a Church of Ireland clergyman). In the meantime, one of the more interesting members was another Patrick d’Arcy, born in 1725 and at the age of fourteen sent to Paris to be raised by an uncle who was a banker there. An eminent soldier and scientist, he was created a French count and a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences, dying of cholera in 1779, two years after marrying his niece Jane d’Arcy.




As so often, we know almost nothing about Kiltullagh’s history. It was clearly a substantial house and stood at the centre of a large estate, but the architect responsible for the building’s design is a mystery. Kiltullagh appears to have been occupied by the d’Arcys until the second decade of the 19th century when the then-head of the family, John d’Arcy, following the death of his first wife, moved west where he founded the town of Clifden and outside it built a new residence, Clifden Castle (now also a ruin). Thereafter the house was rented to tenants and at some date gutted by fire. As with Clifden, the entire property was sold through the Encumbered Estates Court in 1850, being bought for £6,000 by Pierce Joyce. Kiltullagh was never rebuilt and stood a ruin. The former stable yard has been converted into a residence and some years ago work was undertaken on the main building to secure what remained. However, this enterprise appears to have halted and since then the interior has remained filled with scaffolding.

Well Red


It is now half a century since Castletown, County Kildare opened to the public. Constructed during the 1720s as one of our earliest and still greatest extant country houses, the building might have been lost had it not been for the plucky vision of the Hon Desmond Guinness in purchasing Castletown, and then the sterling work of the Irish Georgian Society in undertaking restoration work so that it could welcome visitors. Since 1994 Castletown has been in state ownership and the Office of Public Works, together with the Castletown Foundation, supports an ongoing programme of further improvements to house and contents.



One of the latest projects undertaken inside Castletown has been the conservation of the Red Drawing Room, part of an enfilade on the northside of the ground floor. The design of this space dates from the second half of the 1760s when much work was being undertaken in the house by Tom and Lady Louisa Conolly but the walls were hung in crimson hand-woven damask probably in the late 1860s/early 1870s. An early decision was made not to replace this much-weathered material but to preserve it in situ, carrying out necessary repairs while leaving evidence of age and wear-and-tear. This work is now complete and the room returned to inspection by visitors who will be able to admire a rehang of pictures and other additions to the decorative scheme, not least new curtains of damask woven to match that on the walls. An essay on the Red Drawing Room’s conservation by Christopher Moore is included in Volume XX of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal which has just been published.

The Glory of the House


In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Samuel Lewis wrote that the ‘noble mansion’ at Newbridge, County Dublin was said to hold ‘several valuable paintings by the old masters, which were collected on the continent by the Rev M. Pilkington, author of the Dictionary of Painters, who was vicar of this parish; the drawing room contains several of the paintings described by him.’ The cleric mentioned here was Matthew Pilkington, born in King’s County (now Offaly) in 1701 and ordained a deacon in the Church of Ireland twenty-two years later. His was likely not a very profound vocation, but a position in the established church offered career advantages of which he intended to take advantage. Initially all went well. In 1725 he married the well-connected Laetitia van Lewen, as diminutive – but also as witty – as her husband, and the couple became friends with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Patrick Delany. Through the former Pilkington secured the position of Chaplain to the London Mayor of London and so moved to the other side of the Irish Sea. However in London he antagonized potential supporters and was imprisoned two years later. On returning to Dublin, he then became estranged from his wife and the couple was eventually and scandalously divorced in 1737: just over a decade later Laetitia Pilkington published her entertaining memoirs, from which her former husband emerges in a poor light. Ultimately he recovered his social position thanks to the patronage of Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin who offered Pilkington the living of Donabate and Portraine next to Cobbe’s newly completed seat at Newbridge. As mentioned by Lewis, it is believed that Pilkington travelled to mainland Europe to buy paintings for the house and that this in turn would have informed the work by which he is remembered: The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters, the first such book published in English. It appeared in 1770, four years before the author’s death.




The greater part of Newbridge was built between 1747 and 1752 to the designs of Scottish-born architect James Gibbs, his only known work in Ireland. The following decade a large drawing room was added to the rear of the house. In 1755 Archbishop Cobbe’s son and heir Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Beresford, youngest daughter of the first Earl of Tyrone, and sister of the first Marquess of Waterford, and space was needed for the young couple and the art collection being assembled for the family by Matthew Pilkington. The architect on this occasion was a local man, George Semple who had already overseen the erection of Newbridge. Semple initially proposed adding a pair of wings to the south-facing façade but in the end the decision was taken to construct a single large drawing room/picture gallery to the rear of the house, taking the space previously occupied by a pair of small offices. As has been noted by Julius Bryant, to preserve homogeneity of style within the building Semple used Gibbs’ 1728 Book of Architecture as a source for the design of doorcases and chimney pieces, the former immediately apparent at the entrance to the room from the adjacent antechamber. Running some 45 feet in length, the space has a ceiling featuring ‘a sea of scrolling leaves and floral garlands encircled by dragons and birds fighting over baskets of fruit.’ This work is believed to have been undertaken by stuccodore Richard Williams, a pupil of Robert West: the Newbridge accounts for this period include seven payments to ‘Williams ye stucco man.’




A drawing of the Newbridge drawing room dated c.1840 and attributed to Frances Cobbe shows the room as it looked following a refurbishment of the space two decades earlier. In 1821 payments for furniture were made to Woods & Son, and to Mack, Williams & Gibton of Dublin, who were also paid for curtains in 1828. The carpet, by Beck & Co. of Bath was supplied in March 1823 for £64 and 18 shillings, while the crimson flock wallpaper and matching border came from the Dublin firm of Patrick Boylan. The present arrangement of paintings, the greater part of them collected during the previous century by Archbishop Cobbe and his son and daughter-in-law, dates from the same period. Towards the end of the 19th century, Frances Cobbe called the drawing room ‘the glory of the house. In it the happiest hours of my life were passed.’ She remembered the room as assembled by her parents. Some of the collection had been sold in Dublin in 1812, and in 1839 two key paintings, by Hobbema and Dughet, were sold to pay to fund the construction of some 80 estate workers’ cottages. In November of that year, then owner Charles Cobbe (father of Frances) wrote in his diary, ‘I have filled up the vacancies on my walls occasioned by the loss of the two pictures which have been sold, and I felt some satisfaction in thinking that my room (by the new arrangement) looks even more furnished than before.’ Such is still the case today. In 1985 Newbridge passed into the hands of the local authority, now Fingal County Council, which has been responsible for house and estate ever since. However, Alec Cobbe artist, designer and musical instrument collector, who grew up in the house continues to be devoted to the building. He has valiantly undertaken successive projects to preserve and conserve the interiors, not least the drawing room. As a result today, as noted by Bryant, this gorgeous space today ‘provides a rate opportunity to study an Irish collection in its historic context.’