One of the best-known views of Curraghmore, County Waterford is the façade of the house, the top of which is adorned with the stag of St Hubert, a crucifix between its antlers. This figure is taken from the family crest of the de la Poers who are believed to have first come to Ireland along with other Norman settlers in the 12th century. Here is a photograph taken on the roof of the building and showing the other side of the stag. At some date a metal bar was inserted into the animals’s neck to prevent the head falling off. Meanwhile, Curraghmore’s garden front is likewise topped by a beast, in this instance a dragon with a broken spear through its neck. This comes from the Beresford crest: in 1717 Sir Marcus Beresford married Lady Catherine de la Poer, only child of James, third Earl of Tyrone. Again, repairs have been carried out to the work. Both the stag and dragon were made by Viennese-born sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm, a favourite of the British royal family: he carved several statues of Queen Victoria and her daughter Princess Louise was one of his pupils (indeed he died in her house in London in 1890). Conveniently the back of the dragon carries the date 1st November 1872, presumably referring to when it was made rather than installed on Curraghmore’s roofline.
In Ireland today the name John B Keane is usually associated with a Kerry author of popular stage dramas. In the 19th century however, it would be more likely taken to refer to a successful architect. The date of John Benjamin Keane’s birth is unknown but by 1819-20 he was working as an assistant to Richard Morrison. In 1823 he was listed in Wilson’s Dublin Directory as practising under his own name and for the next two decades enjoyed a busy career. Among his most notable commissions was the design of St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, recently restored after a disastrous fire in 2009, and Queen’s College in Galway (now NUI Galway) in 1845. Keane’s winning design for the latter was described at the time as being ‘ a magnificent edifice in the style of Henry the Eight’s time.’ In addition to such public properties, he also designed a number of private residences, including Magheramenagh Castle, County Fermanagh.
Magheramenagh belonged to a branch of the Johnston family, large numbers of whom had moved from Scotland to this part of the country in the early 17th century. Successive generations lived in the same area of Fermanagh, the estate being inherited in 1833 by James Johnston who five years later married Cecilia, daughter of Thomas Newcomen Edgeworth of County Longford. It would appear that around this time he commissioned from Keane the design of a home for his new bride. The building was much in the style then fashionable, a loose interpretation of Tudor Gothic indicated by the presence of blind gables, polygonal turrets, castellations and finials. Of two storeys other (than a three-floor square tower in the north-east corner) and all faced in crisp limestone, the main entrance was to the north, the southern front looking down on the river Erne. A large conservatory occupied much of the eastern end of the building while the service wing stood to the west, an enfilade of four reception rooms occupying the space between.
Ultimately neither Magheramenagh nor its architect had a happy ending. Keane’s career was wrecked by alcoholism, he fell into debt and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Gaol (a debtor’s prison off Dublin’s south quays: it was demolished in 1975) before dying in 1859. Meanwhile James Johnston had died in 1873 and Magheramenagh passed to his son Robert. He in turn died just nine years later, leaving the estate to his son James Cecil Johnston, then aged less than two. James Cecil would be killed at Gallipoli in August 1915, Magheramenagh then occupied by his widow and two young daughters. Unable to manage, they left the property in 1921 and it was bought as a residence for the local Roman Catholic priest: the following May the house was briefly taken over by the members of the British armed forces. Reverting back to the parish, thereafter it remained in use as a presbytery until the 1950s when abandoned and unroofed. Afterwards a large part of the house was demolished: it can be seen what now remains on the site.
Today’s building is decidedly odd. Heathfield, County Cork dates from c.1780 and as far as the interior is concerned, follows the period’s standard design and layout. Its exterior, on the other hand, is distinctly non-conformist. The entrance front, although facing east, is a blank rubble wall except for one small door placed off-centre. A wing, now ruinous, stands on the north-east corner: might there once have been another on the other side of the façade, thereby creating a miniature Palladian house? Meanwhile the weather-slated rear elevation likewise has just a single point of entry – at basement level – and only two windows (one now blocked) placed on the upper floor. Of the two other sides, that facing north likewise features a basement door as well as a large arched window to light the return on the staircase, while that looking south has pairs of substantial six-over-six sash windows on all three floors. What can be the explanation for such an odd arrangement which must have made the rooms inside rather dark? Did the original builder fear civil disturbance, and therefore minimise points of access to the building? At a time when increased fenestration was becoming the norm, it is hard to explain why, other than for reasons of defence, such limited access to natural light would have been deemed acceptable.
Heathfield is thought to have been built by a branch of the Lane family who lived not far away in a house called Arlinstown. It has also been proposed that the property’s name derives from George Augustus Eliott, created Baron Heathfield in 1787, a career soldier who briefly served as Commander-in-Chief in Ireland in 1774-5 but this seems rather unlikely. A more probable explanation is that Heathfield is a variant of Heathview, the name of a house near Kanturk owned by the Bastable family. By 1818 Heathfield was occupied by one Henry Bastable who appears to have lived there with his family for at least the next twenty years during which time he served as a magistrate in Kinsale and on the Cork Grand Jury, as well as being a member of the local Board of Guardians.
Heathfield’s defensive character would serve it well in the mid-1830s when County Cork experienced considerable disturbance during the Tithe Wars. The campaign against paying money to the Church of Ireland led to the re-emergence of rural secret societies, members of which roved through the countryside at night, attacking houses and demanding the surrender of food, arms and money. In March 1834 Henry Bastable was woken by a large group of men surrounding Heathfield and calling on him to hand over any weapons he might have. From his bedroom window he advised there was only one gun in the house, which they insisted he hand over. Going downstairs to a lower window he duly proffered the gun, but muzzle first: the men outside, fearing he might fire on them as they approached to take the weapon, obliged him to pass over the gun handle first. Next they wanted money, initially seeking a sum of £5. After some negotiation, 50 shillings was agreed upon and given to them. The group then departed, but returned a short time later to give back the gun: Henry Bastable believed this was because it was a new kind of device, the operating mechanism unfamiliar – and therefore of no use – to his nocturnal visitors.
From the mid-19th century onwards, Heathfield was occupied by a succession of different tenants and owners. In 1850 the house was briefly let to a Michael Buck who in turn sublet it to one William Dixon. Subsequently the property was taken by the English-born William Sillifant, who undertook improvements on the land, having bought Heathfield from the Bastables in 1878 for £1,350. In 1890 it was reported that significant malicious damage had been done to the pillars and gates at the entrance to Heathfield. While the Cork Constitution, a staunchly Unionist newspaper, proposed this was because Sillifant was English, a more likely explanation is that he had incurred the wrath of many neighbours by taking them to court for minor offences such as lifestock straying onto his land. As a result, he was unpopular locally.
Heathfield was sold by William Sillifant’s widow in 1905 and changed hands a further three times in the last century before being bought by the family of the present owners. The house was occupied until the 1970s but has since fallen into a poor condition. The dining room floor has completely collapsed and other parts of the building are vulnerable but enough survives to show it was evidently built for a gentleman farmer who wished to emulate the style of living enjoyed by wealthier members of society. In its design, however, Heathfield is decidedly odd.
Many thanks to Fergal Browne for his kind help with the history of Heathfield.
Anyone driving south-east from Durrow, County Laois on the N77 cannot fail to notice a striking ruin on a rise just outside the town. This is Knockatrina, yet another Irish house with unclear origins. The land here was owned by the Flower family, created Viscounts Ashbrook in 1751, whose main residence was nearby at Castle Durrow. The fifth Lord Ashbrook had three sons, the youngest of whom, Lt-Colonel Robert Flower is known to have been living in Knockatrina by the late 1860s following his marriage to Gertrude Hamilton: with no expectations of inheriting the main property, this would have been as much as he could expect to receive. And as the youngest of the family, he had to earn his living which he proved admirably capable of doing since he had a strong interest in engineering. He was responsible for a number of inventions, including a handloom for the unskilled and a latch-hook needle for faster weaving: these devices would be put to use by his neighbour the fifth Viscount de Vesci who in 1904 opened a carpet factory in Abbeyleix. Two years later Robert Flower became eighth Viscount Ashbrook, neither of his elder brothers having had male heirs (in 1877 the sixth Lord Ashbrook had divorced his wife Emily on the grounds of adultery with a Captain Hugh Sydney Baillie). As a result he came into possession of Castle Durrow but by that time the family finances were in poor condition and three years after his death in 1919 the ninth viscount was obliged to sell Castle Durrow.
Knockatrina was inherited by the eighth Lord Ashbrook’s eldest daughter the Hon Frances Mary Flower who in 1893 married Henry White, the younger son of a neighbour. As early as 1908 she and her husband were in trouble for failure to pay debts yet somehow they managed to hang on. Following her husband’s death in 1923, Frances White continued to farm and train horses, despite being declared bankrupt in 1928. It was only in 1946 that she finally moved out of Knockatrina and into a nursing home in Kilkenny where she died the following year aged eighty.
Knockatrina meanwhile had been bought by Mary Mooney who acted as housekeeper and companion to another local woman, Amy Mercier (Mary Mooney would be the beneficiary of the latter’s will). It seems Ms Mooney acquired Knockatrina as an investment rather than a residence since in 1958 her agent, a farmer in the vicinity, arranged to have the house stripped of all removable fittings and unroofed (this was the period when any such building with a roof was liable to domestic rates, hence many of them had the slates removed). Left a shell, Knockatrina quickly deteriorated and the land on which the remains stand was subsequently sold.
As is so often the case, no records appear to exist offering information about when Knockatrina was built or who might have been its architect. It has been proposed that Robert Flower was responsible for the house’s construction but this seems unlikely, not least because by the time he moved there the family was already burdened by debt. More importantly, on the basis of design it looks to belong to the group of medium-sized country houses including Rathwade, Wykeham and Mount Leinster Lodge. There were all in nearby County Carlow and built during the 1830s to the designs of the prolific (and – like the Flowers – permanently indebted) Daniel Robertson in a loosely Tudor Gothic style. If Knockatrina belongs to the same group, and indeed was designed or inspired by the same architect, this means it would have been erected during the lifetime of the fourth Viscount Ashbrook, whose first wife Deborah Friend was a considerable heiress. Given its proximity to Castle Durrow, Knockatrina would then have served as either a dower house or an agent’s residence. However neither would have been required by the late 1860s, so handing it on to a younger son made sense. Inevitably given that the house has been unroofed for almost sixty years almost nothing of the interior survives (other than some tiles on the entrance hall floor). Fortunately, as can be seen in the photographs above, the present owner does not wish for the building to fall into further disrepair. On the contrary, he is keen to undertake a programme of restoration over the coming years and return Knockatrina to residential use. All being well it won’t be long before the view from the N77 offers passers-by not a ruin but once again a fully functioning house.
The extraordinary first-floor gallery at Crom Castle, County Fermanagh. Designed by Edward Blore, the present house dates from the mid-1830s to replace an earlier castle destroyed by fire: ironically sections of this one suffered the same fate soon after completion and had to be reconstructed. The core of the castle is given over to an inner hall that features a bifurcating staircase composed of wood and plaster and in late-Perpendicular style. It rises to the generous gallery screened by a run of arches at either end, the whole lit by an immense octagonal roof lantern.
Seen beneath a thunderous sky and across its parkland, the façade of Swainstown, County Meath. This idiosyncratic house dates from c.1750 and was built for Nathaniel Preston whose elder brother John during the same period was building Bellinter, some ten miles away, to the designs of Richard Castle: accordingly the latter may have had a hand in Swainstown. The house follows the classic Palladian model, the main block being of two storeys with wings on either side linked by quadrants. But thereafter an element of whimsical caprice is apparent, beginning with the limestone window lintels and a front doorcase which is exaggeratedly tall and narrow, and finished with a segmental pediment. Swainstown continues to be occupied by Nathaniel Preston’s descendants.
The history of Tyrone House, County Galway and its sad fall from grace was discussed here a few weeks ago (see A High House on High Ground, September 18th 2017). Above is an image of the building included in the fifth and final volume of the The Georgian Society Records of Eighteenth Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration published in 1913, showing it still intact. One of the house’s most striking features was the entrance hall, dominated by a mid-18th century white marble life-size statue of St. George Ussher St. George, Baron Saint George. This survived until Tyrone House was attacked in August 1920 when the statue was smashed to pieces: as a result, the photograph below is the only record of the work.
Copies of my new book, Tyrone House and the St George Family: The Story of an Anglo-Irish Family are now available from the Irish Georgian Society bookshop. For more information, please see https://shop.igs.ie/collections/books