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.
A County Wexford property formerly known as Grange, but now called Bannow House is thought to date from the mid-1830s when built for Thomas Boyce, although it work may have been initiated a couple of decades earlier by his father Samuel: the Boyce family had settled in the area in the 17th century. Of two storeys, the south-facing facade is of eight bays, the two centre ones breaking forward, with the entrance marked by a fine portico approached by four granite steps and featuring four Ionic columns. Curiously, the rear of the house is lopsided: while the west side runs back six bays, that to the east is more shallow, and partially hidden behind a high screen wall, suggesting a section of the building here was at some date demolished. In any case, an opening in that wall leads to a large and handsome yard constructed, like so many buildings in this part of the country, of local granite.
Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary dates from c.1745 but the house was extensively remodelled in the second half of the 1860s and it was at that time that the first-floor landing was given its present appearance. Exceptionally wide, the space is generously lit by a circular glazed dome resting on a sequence of shallow arches. These are supported by what appear to be marble columns. In fact, the latter are only painted and one quirky detail is that the surface pattern of each column features a number of human profiles, said to represent members of the Trench family who were then owners of the property.
In 1825 Eyre Evans Crowe, a young Irish writer now largely forgotten, published his second novel, To-day in Ireland in which he described a country house given the fictional name of Plunketstown. The building is occupied by one Captain Plunket, whose father, the reader is informed, ‘like many of the grandsires, but few of the sires of the present generation, had been a man of taste and travel. The present mansion was of his building, and almost every tree on the estate was of his planting…Plunketstown Hill, which rose behind the mansion and screened it commodiously from a vast extent of bog which stretched for miles behind, was covered with one of those groves of many colours which in autumn wore the appearance of a hill-harlequin tricked out for Carnival. At its foot stood the mansion, at some distance from the lake, of which nevertheless it commanded a view, and to the brink of which its ample lawn extended. It was a solid square building of dark granite, richly ornamented, of almost perpendicular roof, and chimneys of enormous size. It exactly resembled one of the extreme wings, or pavillons, as they are called, of the Tuileries, the height of roof and chimney not perhaps so exaggerated; and had Plunketstown been ornamented with the jalousies of the Pavillon de Flore, the garret windows peeping out of the slates, the filthy funnel holes, and the conductors, the model had been complete. A huge flight of steps, descending like a waterfall, from a central point in the front towards the lawn, was an indispensable appendix; whilst a deep fosse, running quite around the house, attempted to attain the security of the ancient castle, without infringing upon the commodiousness of the modern mansion.’ The inspiration for Plunketstown, certainly for its location if not quite for its appearance, is said to have been Waterstown, County Westmeath.
Waterstown was built for the Handcock family, who had settled in Ireland in the first half of the 17th century and were granted large areas of land in Westmeath. In due course the main branch of the Handcocks became Barons Castlemaine, who lived at Moydrum Castle elsewhere in the county (see An Unforgettable Fire « The Irish Aesthete). But this particular line of the family came to own an estate on which stood a late 15th century castle built by the Dillons. This building most likely occupied the site of Waterstown since, as did the fictional Plunketstown, it offered superlative views across many miles of the surrounding countryside. Commissioned by Gustavus Handcock, the present house – or what remains of it – is believed to have been built in the 1740s and designed by Richard Castle. It was a very substantial property, of seven bays and three stories over basement, around which ran (again as at Plunketstown) a deep moat. Brick-built, Waterstown was faced, not with granite but limestone, and featured a hipped roof with two tall chimneystacks. On the south-facing garden front, it can be seen that the windows had rusticated surrounds, while a now-lost flight of steps led to a central Gibbsian doorcase. The house was originally two rooms deep, but the main front has long since disappeared, making the building unnaturally tall and thin, and exposing the remains of lugged plaster panelling and corner chimneys on the interior walls. Sections of a former kitchen yard survive on the east side (the main stable yard is located a short distance west of the house).
In 1725 Gustavus Handcock, later responsible for building Waterstown, married Elizabeth Temple, only child and heiress of the Reverend Robert Temple of nearby Mount Temple, also in County Westmeath. In accordance with her father’s will, the family duly assumed the additional surname of Temple, the couple’s grandson who inherited the estate in 1758 being known as Gustavus Robert Handcock Temple, thereby remembering both grandfathers. The next generation, Robert Handcock Temple, had only one child, a daughter called Isabella. In 1824 she married as his second wife the Hon William George Harris, who five years later would succeed his father as second Baron Harris of Seringapatam and Mysore, in the East Indies, and of Belmont, co. Kent (the first Lord Harris was a soldier who achieved particular success in India where he was involved in the defeat of Tipu Sultan following the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799). The eldest of their children, the Hon Reginal Harris, duly inherited the Waterstown estate, once more taking the additional surname of Temple. Dying unmarried in 1900, he in turn left the estate to his brother Arthur; following the latter’s death six years later, the property passed to his son, Arthur Reginald Harris-Temple, who would be the last of the family to live there. By this date, like many other Irish estates, the future of Waterstown had already begun to look uncertain, not least because expenditure exceeded income. In the early years of the 1920s the Harris-Temples did not have to fear hostility in the area (unlike their cousins at Moydrum Castle, which was destroyed by the IRA in 1921) but it seems likely that an insecure future inspired the decision in 1923 to sell Waterstown, both house and remaining lands, to Ireland’s Land Commission. Five years later the local county council considered buying the building for use as a sanatorium, but these plans never came to fruition and in late 1928 Waterstown was sold and soon after stripped of all fittings, the lead and slates removed from the roof and just a shell left. Since then, it has gradually fallen into the present state of ruin.
‘Inver House embodied one of those large gestures of the minds of the earlier Irish architects, some of which still stand to justify Ireland’s claim to be a civilised country. It was a big, solemn, square house of three stories, built of cut stone, grandly planned, facing west in two immense sweeping curves, with a high-pillared portico between them and stone balustrades around the roof.’
‘The high windows of the great room were bare of blinds and curtains, and the hot afternoon sun beat in unchecked. It was a corner room, looking south towards the demesne, and its longer western side was built out in a wide, shallow curve, with two massive pillars of green Galway marble marking at either end the spring of the curve, and supporting a heavy gilt cornice above the broad window.’
‘Everything that had survived of the original conception of the room, the heavy, tall teak doors, with their carved architraves and brass furniture, the huge, brass-mounted fireplace, the high mantelpiece of many coloured marbles, chipped and defaced, but still beautiful, the gorgeous deep-moulded ceiling that Lady Isabella’s Italian workmen had made for her, from the centre of which the wreck of a cut-glass chandelier still hung, all told of the happy conjunction of art and wealth, and of a generous taste that would make the best of both. But a cursory glance would show how long past were the glories of a great room.’
The above passages are taken from Somerville & Ross’s The Big House of Inver, published in 1925, and while their descriptions of Inver are not an exact match, nonetheless in spirit they seem to capture what one can see, and feel, at Scregg, County Roscommon. Dating from the mid-18th century, the house and surrounding land has for hundreds of years belonged to a branch of the ancient Irish Kelly family and was occupied until the 1980s but has since stood empty. How little in some ways has Ireland changed since the time of Somerville & Ross.
Originally from County Durham in England, by 1651 Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh was living in Philipstown (now Daingean), County Offaly, the first of this family to settle in Ireland. His grandson Thomas married Mary Sherlock from Kildare and the couple moved to Ardagh, County Longford where around 1703 he bought some 235 acres of land from the Farrell family. At some point between this acquisition and his death in 1749 he commissioned a new residence in Ardagh; this building is said to have provided part of the inspiration for Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops to Conquer since the playwright mistook the Fetherstonhaugh’s house for an inn. The couple’s eldest son Ralph sat in the House of Commons of the Irish Parliament for 12 years from 1768 onwards and in 1776 was created a baronet. He also simplified the family surname to Fetherston (other branches retained the name in full). His eldest son Thomas, the second baronet, likewise sat as an M.P., in the Irish Parliament until 1800 and thereafter at Westminster until his death in 1819. The third and fifth baronets, Sir George and Sir Thomas Fetherston respectively were responsible for giving the local village of Ardagh its present appearance, by commissioning new housing for the local population. In the early 1860s Sir Thomas employed Dublin-based architect James Rawson Carroll to design one- and two-storey cottages around a green featuring a clock tower erected to the memory of his uncle, Sir George (see Commemorating a Life-long Devotion « The Irish Aesthete)
Sir Thomas Fetherston had only one son, another George, who was only 13 when he inherited the estate. He later became an Anglican clergyman and travelled widely, meaning he did not spend as much time in Ardagh as had his father. Under the terms of the Wyndham Act, in 1903 Sir George sold most of the estate – by then running to some 11,000 acres – to his tenants, retaining only the house and demesne. When he died unmarried at the age of 70 in 1923 the baronetcy died out also. Within a few years, the former family home had been sold to an order of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy who moved into the building and then gradually added extensions to the east side, from which they ran a home economics college. As in the case of so many other such properties, at the start of the present century the nuns gradually wound down operations here and in 2007 the house and surrounding 227 acres was sold at auction for €5.25 million. However, that sale fell through and it was back on the market for €5; by June 2009, as the effects of recession began to be felt, that price had dropped to €3.25 million. It was finally sold at auction in June 2012 for €1.36 million. Since then, the house has sat empty.
As mentioned, the main house at Ardagh is thought to date from the first half of the 18th century when constructed for Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. But much of its present appearance is 19th century, when it was refurbished first by Sir George Fetherston (who laid out the surrounding grounds) and then by his nephew Sir Thomas. The latter was responsible for the present stable block which, like a considerable portion of the adjacent village, was designed by architect James Rawson Carroll and features a series of cut-stone blocks with half-hipped roofs around a central courtyard. Sir Thomas is thought to have been responsible for adding a two-storey, three-bay ballroom wing to the immediate east of the eight-bay house, as well as the latter’s porch and arcaded conservatory. During the Civil War, an attempt was made to burn down the building, but this seems to have caused little damage. A more serious fire in 1948 led to the nuns then in residence removing the top floor, thereby making the house look longer and lower than would previously been the case. Anyone passing through Ardagh village cannot fail to see the building standing forlorn and unkempt across open ground. It seems unfortunate that a property linked to the family who did so much for the area, and which can claim associations with one of the finest comedies ever written in the English language, should today be left in this sad condition.