The Consequence of Extravagance


Ireland’s recent economic recession which caused such hardship and left such devastation in its wake has frequently been blamed on a national inclination to overspend during the good times with insufficient preparation for when these might come to a close. This is by no means a new phenomenon: the country is covered with large houses built over preceding centuries by owners whose architectural aspirations proved larger than their budgets – with inevitably unfortunate consequences. Charleville Forest, County Offaly is one such building: a vast neo-Gothic castle constructed at such expense that it left subsequent generations burdened with debt and, in the case of the last descendant of the original family, with a deep loathing for the place.
It had all begun so promisingly when, in August 1764 Charles William Bury, then just two months old, inherited not just the substantial estates of his deceased father but also those of his great-uncle Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville who had died earlier the same year. The infant Bury was exceedingly rich, his family owning large amounts of land in County Limerick where they had settled in 1666 (their early 18th century house, Shannon Grove, still survives). In addition, thanks to his grandmother being the only sister and heiress of the Earl of Charleville, he came to own large amounts of land around Tullamore, County Offaly where the Moores had first built a house in the 1640s. When he graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1785 he turned 21 and came into a fortune enjoyed by few other young men. Over the next half-century he proceeded to spend his way through it.




It was formerly a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a peerage. Charles Bury, having sat in the Irish House of Commons as an M.P. for Kilmallock, County Limerick was duly created Baron Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and finally Earl of Charleville (reviving his great-uncle’s title) in 1806. He has been described as ‘an amiable dilettante, with antiquarian interests’ the latter leading to his being elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1812. But the same interests were responsible for his decision to build a new residence for himself on his County Offaly estate. As mentioned, a house had existed here since the 1640s, originally known as Redwood and only given the name Charleville Forest (from the ancient oaks all around it) in the 18th century. One might have thought such a building sufficiently antiquarian, but by 1800 Lord Charleville had decided something more ancient-looking was required. Hence he embarked on the construction of an entirely new castle. In concept, if not in detail, he could claim credit for the result: a letter written in November 1800 from Lady Louisa Conolly to Lady Charleville mentions the intended castle and credits the latter’s husband with ‘having planned it all himself.’ Some drawings survive and these, as Sean O’Reilly wrote some years ago, ‘show the crude hand of an amateur, but equally betray a total freedom of imagination unshackled by the discipline of architectural training.’ Lord Charleville was keen that the building should be in the newly fashionable Gothic style but at the same time enjoy all the necessary ‘convenience and modern refinements in luxury.’




While Lord Charleville may have had a hand in outlining the form his new home would take, the details and execution of the project were handed over to architect Francis Johnston, at the time primarily known for his work in the neo-classical idiom. Due to Johnston’s many other commitments, the work took longer than his client would have wished: in 1804 the architect had to agree with Lord Charleville that ‘things went on too slow at the castle’ and so they did as late as 1812 when the job was still not finished. However, enough had been done three years before for the Viceroy, the Duke of Richmond, together with his wife and entourage, to be entertained in the new Charleville Forest. Their host hoped that as a result of their visit he would be appointed to the financially lucrative position of Irish Postmaster General; unfortunately it went to another applicant.
By this time Johnston was also working on the Gothic Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/11/09/a-spirit-of-theatre) and although intended for very different purposes, the two buildings share many characteristics. The interiors of Charleville Forest are highly theatrical, beginning with the double-height hall with vaulted ceiling, encountered as soon as one steps into the building, a grand staircase leading up to the reception rooms on the piano nobile. A door at the top of the stairs leads into the most fantastical of the rooms, the Gallery which overlooks the garden and has a remarkable Perpendicular Gothic ceiling executed in plaster. Lozenges on the ceiling contain various heraldic devices to illustrate the distinguished pedigree of the Bury family, and these appear also on the ceilings of the other main rooms. Note the Moor’s head: this was one of the symbols used by the Moore family. But it is worth pointing out that, stripped of its surface dressing, the interior of Charleville Forest is essentially classical, with an ordered symmetry maintained throughout the building; this is Strawberry Hill Gothick rather than the pure Gothic promoted a few decades later by Pugin et al.




Lord Charleville’s extravagance was not confined to building a castle in County Offaly. He and his wife kept an establishment in London where they entertained lavishly, they travelled frequently and expensively to continental Europe, and supported their son and his wife in a separate property. As a result, on Lord Charleville’s death in 1835, ‘he left a heavily embarrassed estate.’ His heir (described by Thomas Creevey as being ‘justly entitled to the prize as by far the greatest bore the world can produce’) did not share that embarrassment until forced to do so in 1844 when, as a result of his indebtedness he was obliged to sell his Limerick properties, close up Charleville Forest and move to Berlin. On his death in 1851, the now-diminished estate was inherited by his son the third earl; ultimately ownership of Charleville Forest passed to his youngest daughter, Lady Emily Bury whose husband, the Hon Kenneth Howard changed his surname to Howard-Bury. Their son, Lt-Col. Charles Howard-Bury (whose own extraordinary story must be told on another occasion) was the last of the family to live in the castle, but so detested the place that he would not live there: it remained empty following his mother’s death in 1931 and the contents were sold in a spectacular auction in 1949. Since then the place has had what can best be described as a chequered history, sometimes neglected, sometimes undergoing periods of restoration. Having first visited the house almost forty years ago, the Irish Aesthete has witnessed it in a variety of incarnations. In recent years it has come under the care of a charitable organization, the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust which encourages volunteers from Ireland and overseas to help ensure the building’s preservation. It is also used for a variety of events from weddings to film and television filming. Somehow, although large portions are still in need of much attention, happily the building has survived.

A Welcome Addition


‘The house is one of the most extensive in the kingdom, the front exceeding upwards of two hundred feet and one of the most beautiful, being built of the quarries on this estate, and mostly hewn, which gives the whole a magnificent appearance’. So wrote William Wilson in 1803 of the recently built Capard, County Laois. This neo-classical house, situated on high ground with panoramic views across the surrounding countryside, has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the past two centuries with its future uncertain on more than one occasion. However since 2015 its current owners have undertaken a meticulous restoration of both building and demesne so that it is now without doubt one of Ireland’s finest country houses. This week saw the publication of a book chronicling Capard’s history, written by Ciarán Reilly and placing the estate within the context of time and place, allowing readers better to understand the evolution of the midlands region. As handsome as the place itself, Capard: An Irish Country House and Estate is a welcome addition to the field of Irish country house studies


Capard: An Irish Country House and Estate is now available from the Irish Georgian Society, for more information see: https://shop.igs.ie/products/capard-an-irish-country-house-estate

Like a Doll’s House

The doll’s house façade of Annes Grove, County Cork. Originally called Ballyhimmock, the property was acquired by the Grove family in the first half of the 17th century. They were responsible for building the core of the house, which probably dates from c.1720. In 1766, Francis Annesley (future first Earl Annesley) married the estates’s heiress Mary Grove, who came with a fortune of £30,000. The couple lived on his property in Castlewellan, County Down. However in 1792 Annes Grove was inherited by the earl’s nephew Arthur Annesley on condition that he add Mary Grove’s name to his own: hence the family became Grove Annesley. It was during his lifetime that extensive changes were made to the house, not least the addition of the wooden porch with Doric columns. Famous for its gardens created at the start of the last century and now undergoing restoration, Annes Grove passed into the care of the state three years ago and will open to the public in due course.

A Significant Birthday



Last weekend saw festivities marking the 250th anniversary of Monksgrange, County Wexford. Completed in 1769, the house has remained in the ownership of the original builder’s descendants, something of a rarity in Ireland as is also the property’s extensive archive of documents, thoroughly mined over many years by Philip Bull for his recently-published book, Monksgrange: Portrait of an Irish house and family, 1769–1969 (Four Courts Press). In its simplified Palladian design, the building is representative of the aspirations of the country’s landed gentry in the mid-18th century, adopting and adapting aristocratic taste better to secure its own place in the then-social hierarchy. While Monksgrange has undergone some alterations and modifications over the past two and a half centuries, it retains an important place in the history of our architectural evolution.


All That Remains


When John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington commissioned designs for a residence from architect James Gandon in 1790, he already lived in a fine house. This was Dawson Court, presumably built earlier in the 18th century by his grandfather Ephraim Dawson following the latter’s marriage to Ann Preston, heiress to an estate at Emo, County Laois. Since no pictures or descriptions exist, we know very little about that building, other than it was called Dawson Court and stood somewhere in the vicinity of the present, Gandon-designed Emo Court. The only surviving parts of the building are a pair of carved limestone chimney pieces, one of which remains in a former bedroom on the first floor. The other, once protected by a since-demolished passageway, now sits exposed against a wall to the immediate west of the house.

Testifying to a Loss


The handsome 18th century stable yard at Castle Archdale, County Fermanagh. Dating from the early 1770s, the house here was built to replace an older one which had in turn superseded a plantation castle badly damaged in 1689. Of six bays and three storeys over basement, and the largest Palladian house in Fermanagh, Castle Archdale stood on high ground overlooking the shores of Lower Lough Erne. In 1942 the building was requisitioned by the RAF and thereafter never returned to being a private residence: left to fall into ruin, it was demolished in 1970. The stable yard, which stood directly behind, is all that remains to testify to the house’s former presence. It is now used as offices and the grounds of Castle Archdale used as a caravan park.

An Optimistic Future



Until recently, Doneraile Court, County Cork had an unhappy recent past and what threatened to be an equally unhappy future. One of the earliest non-fortified houses in Ireland, the core of the present building was constructed in the 1720s to the design of Isaac Rothery for Arthur St Leger, first Viscount Doneraile. His great-grandfather Sir Anthony St Leger, who came from Kent, had been sent to Ireland in 1537 by Henry VIII and in 1540 was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. The family gradually acquired land in this country, and in 1636 Sir William St. L:eger, Knight, Lord President of Munster bought what is now Doneraile from its previous owners the Synans for ‘the sum of Three hundred pounds sterling current money of and in England in hand payed to us.’ Until Doneraile Court was built, they lived in an old castle on the opposite side of the river Awbeg. The house has a seven-bay, three-storey facade of cut stone with curved end bows added at a later date in the 18th century. Further additions were made in the following century, including a three-bay porch to the front and a vast dining room of 1869 (demolished during restoration work just over a century later). The interior contains an early 18th century panelled room and an oval late-18th century staircase hall with Adamesque plasterwork on its ceiling.





The last Lord Doneraile to live in the house was the seventh Viscount who had been born and lived in New Zealand before inheriting the title and estate in 1941. He and his wife had no children and following his death in 1957 she remained alone in Doneraile Court. Then in 1968 a 47-year old Californian truck driver called Richard St John St Leger arrived in Ireland with his family and claimed to be the Doneraile heir. An application was lodged with the British House of Lords for his claim to be recognised. While this process was underway and despite objections from the estate’s Trustees, the family moved into the house, initially living with the widowed Lady Doneraile although she later settled in a cottage on the estate. Around the same time the Trustees had reached agreement with the Land Commission for the purchase of Doneraile Court and its lands for £56,800. Richard St Leger meanwhile began refurbishment work on the house with the intention of opening it to the public. The Irish Georgian Society offered support and sent a large number of volunteers to help prior to an opening ceremony planned for July 1969 when the American Ambassador to Ireland would officially open the house. However, just a matter of days beforehand, the Trustees gained an injunction in the High Court against the public opening of Doneraile Court on the grounds that the house’s floors were unsafe. They then proceeded to sell its entire contents to a consortium of antique dealers. Soon afterwards the Land Commission completed the purchase of the estate. His claim to the title never proven, Richard St Leger moved out of the house and later returned to the United States.





The Doneraile estate now passed into State ownership as part of the Office of Public Works’ Department of Forestry and Fisheries. But while care was lavished on the parkland in preparation of being opened to the public, the same was not true for the house which rapidly started to show evidence of neglect and deterioration. Windows were broken by vandals, plasterwork in the hall began to fall off the walls and the 19th century conservatory collapsed. In May 1976 it was announced that Doneraile Court was to be leased to the Irish Georgian Society rent-free on condition that the organisation undertook to restore the building. Gradually the house’s dereliction was brought under control. By the end of 1978 the Irish Georgian Society had spent £25,000 on structural repairs and that figure would climb steadily higher; in 1983 the organization estimated it had spent some £40,000 on the house. The amount would have been much higher but for the fact that much of the work had been undertaken by volunteers. In June 1984 the park at Doneraile was opened to the public but a lot more still needed to be accomplished before the house could follow the demesne’s lead and admit visitors. In 1990 a tearoom began operating in the house’s old kitchen, and in April 1992 the ground floor of Doneraile Court opened with a variety of exhibitions on show, including photographs of restoration work from the very start. Two years later, with the greater part of the restoration work completed at a cost of £500,000, the Irish Georgian Society was at last able to hand the house back to the Office of Public Works. For the next 25 years, the building remained closed and shuttered. Finally, last month it re-opened to the public and for once the wait has been worthwhile. As today’s pictures show, Doneraile Court now looks better than it has for more than half a century, the ground floor rooms impeccably refurbished and decorated. Here is a triumphant demonstration that an historic building, no matter how long neglected, can be brought back to peak condition. What has occurred here can, with sufficient ambition and imagination, also happen elsewhere. Congratulations are merited to all involved in this enterprise, which is ongoing as there are plans to open the first floor in due course. Doneraile Court’s unhappy past has been expunged, and the house can now look forward to an optimistic future.



Next Sunday at 3pm I shall be giving a talk at Doneraile Court on a number of houses elsewhere in County Cork which have not enjoyed its good fortune. For further information, please see: http://doneraileestate.ie/event/robert-obyrne-the-irish-aesthete-in-county-cork/

An Architect Visits



The façade of Slane Castle, County Meath. This dates from c.1785 for William Burton Conyngham who four years earlier had inherited the estate from a childless uncle. In 1773 and 1775 the latter had asked English architect James Wyatt to come up with designs to replace an old house on the site but nothing came of these. Only after Burton Conyngham came into possession of the place were Wyatt’s proposals realised (James Gandon having previously been consulted). Writing in 1820 Francis Johnston (who later worked on the house’s interiors), Wyatt visited Slane in 1785 ‘for that purpose.’ If this is so, it was the only time he actually came to Ireland, despite having many clients here.

The Rise – and Fall – of a House of Ussher


A stretch of the Dublin quays on the south side of the river Liffey known as Usher’s Island takes its name from what was once a prominent family in the fields of both commerce and religion. The Ushers/Usshers liked to believe they were descended from Gilbert de Neville, admiral of William the Conqueror’s fleet in 1066. Whatever their origins, in the 14th century John le Uscher was made Constable of Dublin Castle by Edward I, held the office for several years, and was reappointed to the same position by Edward II (who seems to have been his friend or patron, the original appointment having been given “at the instance of King Edward’s son”). Although he returned to his native Yorkshire on retirement, a presumed grandson Arland Ussher (born c. 1420) settled in Dublin, where he became one of the city’s leading merchants; in 1461, he was bailiff of Dublin and, in 1469, mayor. It was from two sons of his second marriage, John and Christopher Ussher that later Irish Usshers were descended. In the late 16th century, John Ussher built a fine residence for himself called Bridgefoot House: where this once stood is now called Bridgefoot Street, while its former riverside gardens are today covered by the buildings of Usher’s Island and Usher’s Quay. It was on this property that the very first book printed in the Gaelic language, containing an alphabet and Christian catechism, was produced. Its title page contains the following information: ‘Printed in Irish in the town of the Ford of the Hurdles, at the cost of Master John Ussher, alderman, at the head of the Bridge, the 20th day of June 1571.” John Usher’s son, Sir William Usher, paid for the publication of the first New Testament printed in the Irish language; this appeared in 1602. Given their strong adherence to the Protestant faith, it is not surprising the family produced several distinguished Anglican clerics, notably Henry Ussher (c. 1550–1613), one of the founders of Trinity College Dublin and, from 1595, Archbishop of Armagh. One of his nephews, James Ussher (1581–1656), held the same position from 1625 onward. Archbishop James Ussher’s scrupulous study of the Bible and early history led him to write the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (‘Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world’), which first appeared in 1650, together with its continuation, Annalium pars posterior published four years later. Famously his research allowed him to calculate the moment of Earth’s creation: around 6pm on 22 October 4004 BC.






As was so often the case, with the passage of time the Usshers distanced themselves from trade and became increasingly gentrified, acquiring land in different parts of the country, and forming advantageous familial alliances. For example, in 1695 a grandson of Sir William Ussher of Dublin, also called William, married Lettice, daughter and co heiress of Sir Henry Waddington; as a result, part of the Waddington estates in county Galway passed into the possession of the Ussher family. Meanwhile, another of Sir William’s grandsons, Beverley Ussher moved south to County Waterford where he made two successive marriages to heiresses, one being a daughter of Sir Percy Smyth of Ballynatray and the other a daughter of Sir Richard Osborne of Ballintaylor. As a result, a branch of the family settled in the south east of the country, where they built up estates and properties in which to live. Cappagh was one of those houses, constructed during the first decade of the 19th century by Beverley Ussher’s great-grandson Richard Ussher. However, in 1875 the old house was abandoned by Richard’s son, Richard John Ussher in favour of a newer residence on higher grounds and with better views across the surrounding landscape. This building was designed by James Otway and Robert Watt, architects and railway engineers who were also responsible for the line that linked Dungarvan to Mallow, County Cork. A keen fossil hunter, Richard John Ussher was seemingly the first person to discover the remains of a mammoth and a saber-tooth cat in Ireland, as well as that of a Great Auk (the last of these excavated in the sand dunes of Tramore, Co. Waterford). He also developed a passionate interest in ornithology and was a keen collector of bird’s eggs. With co-author Robert Warren, the results of his extensive research were published in 1906 as The Birds of Ireland. However, just a few decades later, the Usshers sold what remained of the Cappagh estate to the family of the present owners.






As can be seen in these photographs, old Cappagh is a most curious building, one that suggests a disparity between ambition and income. The front of the house forms the southern portion of a courtyard. At either end of the façade, the building rises two storeys but then, after just one bay, it becomes single storey and turns into a long, narrow villa. Evidently the Usshers embarked on its construction intending the central portion to be of the same dimensions as those at either end, but then – presumably for economic reasons – this project was abandoned and a more modest scheme accepted. Seemingly its builder, the elder Richard Ussher, participated in the Napoleonic Wars and perhaps on returning from these he realized that he needed to re-evaluate the project. Whatever the explanation, it makes for an unusual frontage. The rear of the building is almost as odd, since a high wall soon cuts off the house – centred on a bow which contains its main staircase – from the rest of the courtyard. The latter features all the usual elements found in proximity to a country house, stables, storerooms, staff accommodation and so forth. Inside old Cappagh, the main entrance leads to a hall at the rear of which climbs the aforementioned principle staircase, with reception rooms to left and right; a number of bedrooms upstairs are accessed either by the main staircase or by other flights of steps at either end of the building. Given its unfinished state, it is easy to understand why the Usshers chose to move to another site and start again in the 1870s, leaving the old house to be used for various purposes. It has stood empty for many years and while the present owners of the property resolutely do their best to maintain the site, inevitably the condition of old Cappagh has deteriorated.