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.

Built by His Friends and Countrymen


The garden front of Palmerstown, County Kildare. The estate here was acquired in the middle of the 17th century by a branch of the Bourke family, later Earls of Mayo, who built a residence later described as ‘an old fashioned house, added to from time to time in an irregular manner, the rooms low and small but enriched with some good pictures, particularly a set of Sir Joshuas.’ In 1872 Richard Southwell Bourke, the sixth earl, was assassinated while serving as Viceroy of India. Subsequently a new house was erected for the family, the costs defrayed by public subscription: a plaque over the entrance notes that it was built ‘by his friends and countrymen.’ Designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt in what is generously described as a Queen-Anne style, the second Palmerstown only lasted half a century, being burnt during the Civil War in January 1923: the elderly seventh earl was a Free State Senator and therefore vulnerable to attack from Anti-Treaty forces. The building was subsequently reconstructed under the supervision of architect Richard Orpen but without its original third-storey Mansard roof. Having changed hands several times in the last century, it is now a wedding venue.

Giving Credit Where Due


The drawing room ceiling in Killruddery, County Wicklow. This part of the house was designed for the tenth Earl of Meath by Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison in the 1820s. Usually the names of craftsmen employed in such tasks remain unknown but specific information has been found about this ceiling. The principal plasterer was Henry Pobje of Dublin but he didn’t work alone. Fifty years ago in 1968 when Elizabeth, Countess of Meath was repainting the room, she discovered on top of one section of the cornice the name of Simon Gilligan, together with the date 24th April 1824, which was presumably when the plasterwork was completed.

‘A Tall, Unlovely Block’


‘It was in the sixteenth century that Robert Martin, one of the long and powerful line of High Sheriffs and Mayors of Galway, became possessed of a large amount of land in West Galway, and in 1590 Ross was his country place. From this point the Martins began slowly to assimilate West Galway; Ross, Dangan, Birch Hall, and Ballinahinch, marked their progress, until Ballinahinch, youngest and greatest of the family strongholds, had gathered to itself nearly 200,000 acres of Connemara. It fell, tragically, from the hand of its last owner, Mary Martin, Princess of Connemara, in the time of the Famine, and that page of Martin history is closed in Galway, though the descendants of her grandfather, ‘Humanity Dick ‘ (for ever to be had in honourable remembrance as the author of ‘Martin’s Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’), have kept alive the old name of Ballinahinch, and have opened a new and notable record for themselves in Canada…’




‘Through a line of Jaspers, Nicholases and Roberts, the story of Ross moved prosperously on from Robert of Elizabeth’s times, untouched even by the hand of Cromwell, unshaken even when the gates of Galway, twelve miles away, opened at length to Ireton. Beyond the town of Galway, the Cromwellian did not set his foot; Connemara was a dark and barren country, and the Martins, Roman Catholic and Royalists to the core, as were all the other Tribes of Galway, held the key of the road. From that conflict Ross emerged, minus most of its possessions in Galway town and suburbs; after the Restoration they were restored by the Decree of Charles II, but remained nevertheless in the hands of those to whom they had been apportioned as spoil. The many links that had bound Ross to Galway Town seem thence forward to have been severed; during the eighteenth century the life of its owners was that of their surroundings, peaceful for the most part, and intricately bound up with that of their tenants. They were still Roman Catholic and Jacobite – a kinsman of Dangan was an agent for Charles Edward – and each generation provided several priests for its Church. With my great-grandfather, Nicholas, came the change of creed; he became a Protestant in order to marry a Protestant neighbour, Miss Elizabeth O’Hara, of Lenaboy; where an affair of the heart was concerned, he was not the man to stick at what he perhaps considered to be a trifle. It is said that at the end of his long life his early training asserted itself, and drew him again towards the Church of his fathers; it is certainly probable that he died, as he was born, a son of Rome. But the die had been cast. His six children were born and bred Protestants. Strong in all ways, they were strong Protestants, and Low Church, according to the fashion of their time, yet they lived in an entirely Roman Catholic district without religious friction of any kind…’




‘It was during the life of Nicholas, my great-grand-father, that Ross House was burned down; with much loss, it is believed, of plate and pictures; it had a tower, and stood beautifully on a point in the lake. He replaced it by the present house, built about the year 1777, whose architecture is not aesthetically to his credit; it is a tall, unlovely block, of great solidity, with kitchen premises half underground, and the whole surrounded by a wide and deep area. It suggests the idea of defence, which was probably not absent from the builder’s mind, yet the Rebellion of twenty years later did not put it to the test. In the great storm of 1839, still known as ” The Big Wind,” my grandfather gathered the whole household into the kitchen for safety, and, looking up at its heavily-vaulted ceiling, said that if Ross fell, not a house in Ireland would stand that night. Many fell, but Ross House stood the assault, even though the lawn was white with the spray borne in from the Atlantic, six miles away. It has at least two fine rooms, a lofty well-staircase, with balusters of mahogany, taken out of a wreck, and it takes all day the sun into its heart, looking west and south, with tall windows, over lake and mountain. It is said that a man is never in love till he is in love with a plain woman, and in spite of draughts, of exhausting flights of stairs, of chimneys that are the despair of sweeps, it has held the affection of five generations of Martins…’




‘Life at Ross was of the traditional Irish kind, with many retainers at low wages, which works out as a costly establishment with nothing to show for it. A sheep a week and a cow a month were supplied by the farm, and assimilated by the household; it seemed as if with the farm produce, the abundance of dairy cows, the packed turf house, the fallen timber ready to be cut up, the fruitful garden, the game and the trout, there should have been affluence. But after all these followed the Saturday night labour bill, and the fact remains, as many Irish landlords can testify, that these free fruits of the earth are heavily paid for, that convenience is mistaken for economy, and that farming is, for the average gentleman, more of an occupation than an income.’


Extracts from Violet Martin’s essay The Martins of Ross published posthumously in 1917. 

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.