Kinnitty Castle, County Offaly was originally known as Castle Bernard, its name reflecting that of the man responsible for commissioning much of what is seen today, Thomas Bernard, although an earlier house is incorporated to the rear of the building. All cased in crisp limestone, it was designed in the early 1830s by architect siblings James and George Pain, and reflects the period’s fondness for the Tudor-Revival style, although an octagonal tower on the south-west corner harks back to an earlier era. Kinnitty Castle was burnt out in 1922 and subsequently rebuilt, before becoming an agricultural college in the 1950s. A quarter of a century ago it was converted into an hotel, and remains so to the present. Inside the main gates is a pretty Tudoresque lodge (with the most charming ogee-headed doorcase) which is thought to be older than the main house, perhaps dating to the opening years of the 19th century and designed by Samuel Beazley. Alas, despite providing a first impression for guests to the hotel, it stands empty and has been allowed to fall into the present sad condition.
When writing about Ireland’s ruined country houses, the reason given for their destruction can sometimes be official indifference but rarely official action. However, the fate of Drum Manor, County Tyrone demonstrates that sometimes the latter happens. The origins of the property lie with Alexander Richardson, member of a family of Edinburgh burgesses who in 1617 bought the land on which it stands and constructed a house called Manor Richardson. His descendants remained there for the next two centuries and then in 1829 Drum Manor underwent a complete transformation.
In 1829 Major William Stewart Richardson-Brady remodelled Drum Manor to the designs of an unknown architect, and given the new name of Oaklands. The house became a two-storey, three-bay villa dressed up with Tudor-Revival dressings, such as crenellations along the roofline, along with buttresses on the facade, a gabled single-storey entrance porch flanked by projecting bays with mullioned windows. The major’s only child, Augusta Le Vicomte, first married another Major, Hugh Massy, but following his death less than two years later, she married Henry James Stuart-Richardson, future fifth Earl Castle Stewart of Stuart Castle, elsewhere in County Tyrone (also since lost).
In 1869 Augusta and Henry James Stuart-Richardson aggrandised Oaklands, which now became Drum Manor, at the cost of some £10,000. The architect in this instance was William Hastings of Belfast, most of whose commissions were in neighbouring County Antrim. He was responsible for giving the house its most dominant features, not least a four-storey square tower with castellated and machiolated parapet. Inside, the building’s principal reception rooms radiated off a double-height central hall with a gallery running around the first floor. Elaborate works were also undertaken in the surrounding demesne, much of which survives in better condition than the main building. This survived until 1964 when the estate was acquired by the Northern Ireland Forestry Service; just over a decade later, that organisation demolished much of Drum Manor, seemingly in order to avoid incurring further rates liability. Today, just the shell survives.
The great porte-cochère makes quite a statement at the entrance to Killymoon Castle, County Tyrone. Set above the Ballinderry river, the Norman-style building dates from 1802 when designed by John Nash (his first Irish commission) for Colonel James Stewart whose forebears had arrived from Scotland in the second quarter of the 17th century and settled in this part of the country; the original house on the site had been destroyed by fire in 1802. Some time after being completed, the castle was described by Irish Penny Journal as ‘one of the most aristocratic residences in the province of Ulster.’ But the enterprise was expensive (it was reputed to have cost £80,000) and the Stewarts were extravagant, so the estate had to be sold in the mid-19th century after which it passed through a number of hands before passing into the family of the present owners almost 100 years ago.
Last Monday’s post featured a very brief synopsis of the history of Coollattin, County Wicklow, believed to be the largest house in Ireland. The core of the building, and that first seen by visitors today, was designed in the 1790s for the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam by John Carr of York. In the mid-1870s the sixth earl decided to expand the property by creating a new entrance front as well as adding a new south range along with servants’ wing, stables and carriage houses, hence the place’s considerable size today. He gave this job to another Yorkshire resident, his clerk of works at Wentworth Woodhouse, William Dickie. Whereas the original house is finished with lined render, the extensions are fronted in local granite, so for the most part, at least on the exterior, it is possible to see which parts are by Carr and which by Dickie.
The most striking addition made by Dickie and his client to the building is a new entrance at what had been the rear of Coollattin. The ground slopes behind the house, so this entrance is at a lower level than its predecessor to the south, and features a great portico with paired Doric columns and a flight of granite steps leading up to the door. Inside is a fine hall with coved ceiling and flagged limestone floor. A smaller inner hall contains a large chimneypiece but to the immediate right is a flight of steps which in due course turns 90 degrees to introduce the main staircase climbing to the ground floor of the original house. Beneath a coffered ceiling and lit by a line of tall arched windows – these matched by a balustraded gallery with similar openings on the facing side of the steps – this staircase has terrific drama, reminiscent of that found in Piedmontese or Sicilian Baroque palaces. It is quite unlike anything else in the entire building, much of the rest of Dickie’s work here being competent but lacking excitement. When eventually restored, this great staircase will provide a most marvelous ceremonial access to this important Irish country house.
Many people will be familiar with the travails in recent years of Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, said to be the largest private house in England (and with the longest facade of any house in Europe). However, they are unlikely to know about Coolattin, County Wicklow which, at 65,000 square feet is thought to be the largest private house in Ireland. It is no coincidence that both properties – which suffered such long periods of neglect that their respective futures looked imperilled – were originally built for the same family, the Earls Fitzwilliam. In England and Ireland alike, the Fitzwilliams were very substantial landowners – here they came to have some 90,000 acres – which allowed them to build on a more palatial scale than most other peers. And the rich seams of coal on their Yorkshire property further enhanced their wealth, as was described in Catherine Bailey’s 2007 book Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty. However, their direct link with Ireland only began in 1782 when the fourth earl inherited the estates of his childless maternal uncle, the second Marquess of Rockingham: the latter was a descendant of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford who had been Charles I’s Irish Lord Deputy in the 1630s and while here embarked on what was then intended to be the country’s largest private house, at Jigginstown, County Kildare (his recall in 1640 left the building unfinished).
In January 1794 the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam arrived in Ireland as the country’s new Lord Lieutenant. At this time, the French Revolution was at its most violent and the British government rightly feared similar insurrection could occur here: Fitzwilliam believed the best way to avoid such a state of affairs was to promote Catholic Emancipation and curb the power of the Protestant Ascendancy. However, rather like Lord Strafford before him he managed to alienate many potential supporters and by March of the following year he was on his way back to England, his Lieutenancy term having been brought to an abrupt end. Nevertheless, he retained an interest in Ireland and decided to build himself a proper residence on his Wicklow estate here at Coolattin. There seems to have been some building, perhaps a hunting lodge on the site already because as early as 1776 suggestions were made for its improvement. However work only began in 1796, to a design by the Yorkshire architect John Carr whose long life and successful career saw his style move from Palladianism to Adamesque classicism. The Fitzwilliams had already employed Carr in England, which explains how he received the commission in this country. He was not an innovator, so the house is conservative and restrained in style, the entrance front being of two storeys and of five bays, with a three-bay breakfront beneath a substantial pediment holding the Fitzwilliam coat of arms. A relatively modest doorcast with fanlight is framed by free-standing Tuscan order columns supporting a wide pediment.The side elevations are distinguished by generous full-height central bows. Even before this was finished, Coolattin was burnt during the 1798 Rising, so much of it had then to be rebuilt in the first years of the 19th century.
As shall be explained in due course, during the 19th century Coolattin underwent considerable expansion and alteration, so that it is not always easy to see what parts today survive from the original Carr building. The entrance front, for example, was moved from south to north, and the wall between hall and drawing room removed in order to create one large reception space. In the 1880s the adjacent library was hung with a Chinese wallpaper, with a room to the rear of the house receiving the same treatment. From here one moves to the dining room which the plans show was intended to be bowed at both ends but it appears this part of Carr’s scheme was never executed as only the east (window) side concludes in a bow. However, its equivalent on the other side of the staircase hall is double-bowed. Unraveling what parts of the interior design date from which period will be an ongoing challenge, not least in the aforementioned staircase hall, its great coved ceiling holding a dome to light the space. The first floor features a gallery, each of its walls containing three large arches, some blind, some giving access to bedrooms, all topped with glazed fanlights.
Given the size of the place, and the persons involved in its rise and near-fatal fall, the story of Coolattin is a long one, but to summarise: the Fitzwilliams remained in possession of the property well into the last century: in 1943 the eighth earl inherited the estate, along with those in England. As is well known, five years later he was killed in a plane crash, as was the woman with whom he was then having an affair, the widowed Marchioness of Hartington, otherwise known as Kathleen Kennedy, sister of future President John F Kennedy. His widow, Olive Plunket lived on at Coolattin until her own death in 1975 after which it was sold by the Fitzwilliams’ only child, Lady Juliet Tadgell (mother-in-law, incidentally, of British Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg). Coolattin then went through an unfortunate period when it changed hands a couple of times, with much of the surrounding land and all the remaining original contents sold off. In 1983 it was acquired, along with 63 acres, by an American couple, the Wardrops, who did much to ensure the place survived. Twelve years later, her husband having died, the widow sold Coolattin to the local golf club which sought to expand its course from nine to 18 holes. For the next quarter century the building stood unoccupied and although some maintenance work was undertaken, it is now in poor shape. Offered for sale last year, Ireland’s biggest house has just been bought by a small group of concerned individuals who have set themselves the task of bringing the place back from the brink of ruin. They face an undertaking as massive as Coolattin itself.
In a wonderful location looking east across Lough Arrow, Ballindoon, County Sligo was originally called Kingsborough, thereby indicating it was built for a branch of the King family who some lived some 25 miles away at Rockingham, County Roscommon. The latter house was designed by John Nash and Ballindoon has sometimes also been attributed to him, but since it is believed to date from c.1820 perhaps it can only regarded as being in his style: by that date the architect was far too busy with royal commissions in London to have time for an Irish client. Essentially a lake-side villa, Ballindoon is a building of exceptional character, beginning with the immense pedimented Doric portico on the north-facing entrance front, its scale overwhelming the single bays on either side. Similarly the garden front is dominated by an enormous dome-topped bow, with a further series of engaged Doric columns around the ground floor. Unfortunately, like Hollybrook a few miles to the west (see previous entry), Ballindoon has stood empty for some years and is now suffering as a consequence, with what appears to be dry rot appearing on the upper floor: the insertion of uPVC windows throughout the house probably doesn’t help. Ballindoon was offered for sale with 80 acres three years ago, but remains unsold, and accordingly remains at risk.
In a wonderful location looking east across Lough Arrow, Hollybrook, County Sligo dates from the mid-18th century when believed to have been built to replace an earlier castle on the site: the estate then belonged to the ffolliott family around 1659, subsequently passing in and out of their possession on at least one occasion. In the last century it was run for several decades as an hotel (see a fascinating piece of film from 1938 showing it in use for this purpose: (1) Holiday at Hollybrook House, Co Sligo 1938 – YouTube) but in recent decades the house has stood empty and falling into the present state of decline; despite being on the market for several years along with 275 acres, it remains unloved. In urgent need of help if it is to survive, Hollybrook is of three storeys over basement and superficially appears to be a typically symmetrical building of the period. However, an examination of the facade shows that the handsome Doric portico is slightly off-centre: note how it is closer to the window on the left than to that on the right. The rear of the building shows similar idiosyncracies in the fenestration placement. One wonders therefore whether the old castle, probably a tower house, wasn’t demolished but, as happened in other instances, incorporated into a new house. Alas, an examination of the interior would be required to take this investigation further.
Despite being built as a private residence, there’s something distinctly institutional about Muckross House, County Kerry; this impression not helped, obviously by the expanses of bleak gravel in front of the building. Replacing an earlier house, the present Jacobethan-style one dates from 1839-43 when designed by Scottish architect William Burn for Colonel Herbert. It was here that the Herberts famously entertained Queen Victoria in 1861 during her visit to Killarney, and seemingly the cost of the royal stay (for which the house was lavishly redecorated) together with declining income from their estates, led the family to bankruptcy; in 1899 Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun bought Muckross for his wife Olivia whose mother had been a Herbert. Then, the property was sold to an American William Bowers Bourn who in turn presented it to his daughter Maud on the occasion of her marriage to Arthur Vincent. But following her early death, in 1932 Bourn and Vincent decided to present the house and surrounding 11,000 acres to the Irish nation and it has remained in public ownership ever since. Standing on the terrace and looking west towards Muckross Lake, it is easy to understand why the house was built here, even if harder to understand why it was built in quite such an unforgiving style.
Based in County Sligo, the O’Haras are an ancient Irish family, their surname an anglicisation of the original Ó hEaghra, descendants of Eaghra Poprigh mac Saorghus who died in 926. The family’s ancestry is attested by the Book of O’Hara (Leabhar Í Eadhra), a volume of bardic poetry written on vellum for Cormac O’Hara in 1597 and acquired by the National Library of Ireland almost 20 years ago. It might therefore have been expected that during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, when so many other similar Gaelic families lost everything, the O’Haras would suffer the same fate. However, in this instance, by adapting themselves to changing circumstances, they survived and continue to live in the same area as did their forebears hundreds of years earlier. When Cormac’s son Tadgh O’Hara died in 1616, he left two infant boys, the elder another Tadgh, the younger Kean, who were raised as members of the Established Church by the Court of Wards. In consequence, despite some confiscations, they managed to hold onto more of their ancestral lands than was customarily the case, and although never rich (and frequently in debt) they survived. Their circumstances were helped, as often occurred, through judicious marriages which brought into the family property in northern England and also in Dublin: included in the latter was a site on Essex Street where the original Custom House once stood and another on Wellington Quay today occupied by the Clarence Hotel.
Tadgh O’Hara the younger died unmarried in 1634 and so the estates passed to his brother Kean whose two elder sons also dying without direct heirs in turn the O’Hara lands passed to another Kean. Of the next generation, the elder son Charles sat for some time in the Irish House of Commons but is best remembered now as the close correspondent and almost father-figure to Edmund Burke. Meanwhile his younger brother Kane O’Hara became well-known as a playwright and composer who in 1757 co-founded the Musical Academy in Dublin with the Earl of Mornington (again a talented composer and father of the future first Duke of Wellington). Five years later, he scored a success on stage with Midas, the first-known burletta (a kind of parody of opera seria) to be performed in English. After being performed in Dublin’s Crow Street Theatre, it reached Covent Garden in London in 1764 and was succeeded by a number of other burlesques written by O’Hara. In 1774 he opened Mr. Punch’s Patagonian Theatre on Dublin’s Abbey Street. This was a theatre which staged puppet versions of operas and burlesques and later also transferred to London. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who would later sing in operas by Mozart, Gluck and Paisiello, performed in O’Hara’s premises while a young man. Meanwhile his nephew, another Charles O’Hara, duly inherited the family estate in Sligo and, like his father before him, sat in the House of Commons, although described in 1782 as ‘a very dull, tedious speaker.’ He opposed the Act of Union, but then sat in the Westminster parliament representing Sligo until his death, when he was succeeded by his son, Charles King O’Hara who did not stand for election but remained in Ireland where he was prominent in relief efforts during the Great Famine. Dying childless, his estate went to a nephew, Charles William Cooper, with the condition that the latter changed his surname to O’Hara. It is his descendants who have continued to live on the site to the present day.
The O’Haras were never particularly wealthy, were often heavily indebted and their estates remortgaged: it didn’t help that on several occasions there were legal disputes among them over inheritances (a common phenomenon in late 17th/early 18th century Ireland). In the 1790s, financial circumstances had become so bad that they were facing bankruptcy, and large portions of their property had to be sold to pay some outstanding debts. The family’s base was always close to the town of Collooney, which they sought to improve, not least by establishing a bleach mill there. Likewise they tried to modernise and better the land they owned a few miles to the south-west of Collooney. The house there is now called Annaghmore but for a long time named Nymphfield (or Nymphsfield). A succession of buildings seems to have occupied the site, the first one, which may have been a tower house or fortified manor, thought to have been demolished in the 1680s. Its replacement, on which much money was lavished in 1718, lasted until the start of the 19th century, perhaps around 1822 when Charles King O’Hara inherited the estate. Surviving images of this building show it to have been of two storeys with single storey wings on either side, very typical of the Regency villa. In the early 1860s Charles William O’Hara, having inherited the estate and changed his surname according to the terms of his uncle’s will, embarked on a substantial enlargement of the house, by now called Annaghmore, its design attributed to the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller. It is this house, a full expression of high-Victorian taste, which can be seen today, all fronted in crisp limestone ashlar. The facade was graced with an Ionic portico, a second storey added to the wings and the building extended to the rear, although part of this was demolished in the last century. Largely unaltered over the past 150 years, the interiors are wonderfully florid, reflecting the bold confidence of this period, post-Famine and pre-Land Wars, when estate owners embarked on a flurry of building work. Long may it remain as a celebration of that era.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of a book that might be said to have initiated modern interest in the Irish country house. Of course, there had been other publications on the subject before, not least the fifth volume of the original Georgian Societies records of 1913, and Sadleir and Dickinson’s Georgian Mansions in Ireland, produced two years later (see Glimpses into a Vanished World « The Irish Aesthete and Enriched with Treasures « The Irish Aesthete). And in the interim, other writers like Mark Girouard and the Knight of Glin had visited various houses around the country, the results of these explorations duly appearing in publications such as Country Life. But Irish Houses & Castles was different because it attempted to give an overview of the country’s historic domestic properties, and in doing so allowed the reader to draw conclusions about what made Ireland’s country houses different from those found elsewhere. The book was jointly authored by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan, the former bringing to the work all the experience and knowledge – and indeed social connections – he had gathered since establishing the Irish Georgian Society with his first wife Mariga 13 years earlier. Indeed, one of the purposes of Irish Houses & Castles was to raise funds for the society, which would receive all royalties from sales. Indicative of the appetite for such publications is the fact that the first American edition of 2,000 copies sold out within a month: over the next decade a further 75,000 more copies were published. The funds raised proved invaluable, since at the time the IGS was in the throes of rescuing Castletown, County Kildare. ‘If ever a book saved a house,’ Desmond later remarked, ‘ours saved Castletown, where weekly wages somehow had to be paid, and restoration work continue.’
Irish Houses & Castles featured 39 of the most important remaining historic homes in the country, at least a dozen of which have since either been destroyed or else changed hands with the loss of the original contents. In this way, the book is now an historic record but at the time of publication, it provided valuable information on what was a largely unknown subject, not least thanks to the two authors’ introduction which, after discussing the architectural evolution of Irish houses, moved on to examine the paintings and furniture that had been made for them, and even the gardens, gatehouses and follies that ornamented their surrounding estates. As with the books published earlier in the century, an important although often overlooked feature of Irish Houses & Castles is that it offers an insight into how such properties were decorated at the time, frequently in a style quite unlike that today. For example, there is a photograph of the entrance hall at Abbey Leix, County Laois. Today this has been restored to ensure that the eye is immediately caught by its architectural qualities, but 50 years ago the hall still looked much as it probably did in the late Victorian/Edwardian era: acting as an informal meeting space/sitting room it contained chintz-covered sofas on either side of the chimneypiece, an abundance of side tables and bibelots, and a tall folding screen in front of the front door in order to minimise draughts. The writer is old enough to remember many such house entrance halls decorated in the same fashion, but today they have cleared of clutter and tend to be much more sparsely furnished. And of course, many of the original contents of Abbey Leix, accumulated by successive generations, were dispersed when the house was sold in the mid-1990s; again, one remembers that occasion, typical of the time with the marquee outside the house, the surrounding fields filled with cars and the excitement of eventual prices far exceeding estimates (£700 paid for a selection of old copper pans and jelly moulds expected to go for no more than £120). Now the photographs featured in Irish Houses & Castles have become an invaluable source of information about how the place used to look.
The pictures shown here today, all taken from Irish Houses & Castles, demonstrate how vulnerable these properties remain, and how little protection they still have. The dispersal of Abbey Leix’s original contents in the mid-1990s has already been mentioned. To go through the others, one begins with Belvedere, County Westmeath. Today the house is in the care of the local authority which does an admirable job in maintaining the place. But the contents, which included many items originally from Charleville Castle, County Offaly, were all sold in September 1980. Since it appeared in Irish Houses & Castles, Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny has changed hands on a number of occasions, and the same is also true of Bellamont Forest, County Cavan: in both instances the present owners are American. Meanwhile Malahide Castle: two years after Irish Houses & Castles appeared the 7th Lord Talbot de Malahide died suddenly and the property was inherited by his sister Rose, who offered the castle and its contents to the Irish state in lieu of death duties. The offer was declined and as a result, in 1976 a public auction was held with many important items leaving the country. Ironically, the state – which had bought the castle and surrounding 268 acres – found itself bidding against international dealers and collectors in order to buy some pieces so the building would not be entirely denuded. An expensive and unnecessary act of national folly. Meanwhile elsewhere in County Dublin Rathbeale, which had been restored and furnished by Julian and Carola Peck was subsequently sold, the couple moving to County Derry where they restored another important 18th century house, Prehen; alas, since the deaths of the couple and their surviving son, that house and its contents are likewise at risk (see Hanging On « The Irish Aesthete). Luttrellstown Castle, which had been given by Ernest Guinness to his daughter Aileen on the occasion of her first marriage in 1927 (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). She had extensively refurbished the house in the 1950s, the work overseen by decorator Felix Habord. Once more, it was sold in 1983 and the fabulous contents again dispersed thanks to an auction lasting several days. Finally, and most tragically, one turns to Powerscourt, County Wicklow which, having been acquired from the Wingfields by the Slazenger family was thoroughly restored and then, just as this work was completed, the building was gutted by fire in November 1974, an irreparable loss to the country’s architectural heritage. If for the photographs and account of Powerscourt alone, this is what makes Irish Houses & Castles such an important document.