A scrolled pediment over the main entrance to Millbrook, County Laois carries the date 1885, the year this house was built as a residence for the agent of the de Vesci estate. Its architect was William Chambers (no relation of the 18th century architect of the same name), who just four years later would design Britain’s first purpose-built mosque in Woking, Surrey. Broken windows, lost slates and encroaching vegetation all indicate that Millbrook is now in an imperilled condition.
Described over a century ago as the finest early Georgian house in this part of the country, Florence Court, County Fermanagh epitomizes the challenges facing anyone who tries to understand the evolution of the Irish architecture. In particular, it raises the two key questions that come up time and again in this field? When was it built? And who was responsible for the design? In the case of Florence Court, the answer to the first question appears to be that the building was developed over a period of time and to the second that a number of parties were involved. But, as will be made apparent, precise dates and names remain maddeningly elusive.
Florence Court was built for the Cole family, the first of whom, Sir William Cole was a professional soldier who arrived in Ireland in 1601 and having acquired large tracts of land in Fermanagh, based himself in Enniskillen Castle. Successive generations of Coles prospered and by the early 18th century it was clear a proper country estate was required, especially as John Cole – who appears to have been responsible for initiating the construction of Florence Court – served as a member of parliament for the area. The house’s name derives from that of the same John Cole’s wife, a Cornish heiress called Florence Wrey. Their son, also John Cole, was raised to the peerage in 1760 as Lord Mountflorence, and in turn his elder son William Willoughby Cole was created first Viscount Enniskillen in 1776 and finally Earl of Enniskillen in 1789. The house remained in the family’s ownership until 1953 when it passed into the care of the National Trust. Two years later a fire badly damaged the property, which was subsequently restored. It is possible that material relating to the building’s evolution was lost on that occasion, since no documentation on the subject survives. Hence when it comes to dates and architects, conjecture must take the place of knowledge.
An anonymous manuscript dating from 1718 makes reference to a ‘very costly and sumptuous building’ which John Cole was then building at Florence Court. However, it is not known how much of this work was accomplished before his death in 1726. His son, the future Lord Mountflorence is likely to have been responsible for overseeing the construction of the present central block. A demesne map drawn up the year after his death in 1767 includes an elevation of the house’s façade which on the top floor had a large framed oculus window on the top floor. This feature is frequently found in buildings designed by Richard Castle, giving rise to speculation that he was responsible for Florence Court. It is possible such was the case, since in the late 1720s Castle was drawing up designs for Castle Hume on the other side of Enniskillen (for more on this, see A Glimpse of the Past, August 22nd 2016).
Furthermore, in discussions of the house’s evolution it has been noted that Castle subsequently went on to design Hazlewood, County Sligo the owner of which, Owen Wynne, was associated with John Cole in the development of a road between Enniskillen and Sligo. At least some of the interiors of the main house do look to be early 18th century (the ground floor library is a particularly curious room, featuring stylistic elements from a number of different periods). But here, as was so often the case, aspiration exceeded income and the Florence Court of c.1730 was internally a relatively plain affair.
In August 1758 Mrs Delany met the future first Earl of Enniskillen freshly returned from a Grand Tour and observed ‘Mr Cole ((£5,000 a year and just come from abroad), a pretty, well-behaved young man’. While his annual income is likely to have exaggerated, nevertheless the Coles did come into sufficient funds to embark on a further programme of work at Florence Court. Some of this seems to have derived from a legacy following the death without direct heirs of Sir Arthur Cole, Lord Ranelagh but more likely the greater part of the money was received thanks to the periodic sale of two seats in the House of Commons for the borough of Enniskillen which the Coles then controlled: each of these could have raised as much as £1,500-£2,000 at each election. Whatever the source, fresh supplies of money meant first the interiors of the main reception rooms, the staircase and the first-floor ‘Venetian Room’ and then at a slightly later date single storey wings concluding in pavilions were added on either side of the house. On the basis of similarities with Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny and Kilshannig, County Cork these external additions have long been attributed to the architect and engineer Davis Ducart; once again, no documentary evidence exists to tie him directly to the work so one must depend on informed guesswork. The façade was presumably altered at the same time: note how the top-floor oculus shown in the 1767 drawing has gone, replaced by a pedimented niche that complements those immediately below. The alterations it has undergone means that as an object of study Florence Court is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It tantalizes with hints but never reveals the whole story. Perhaps one day more information will turn up but for the present speculation and surmise must suffice.
Pastoral scene with country house as backdrop: Ardbraccan, County Meath. The central block dates from the 1770s when it was constructed for the then-Bishop of Meath, Henry Maxwell. Visiting the place two centuries ago, the English agronomist and politician John Christian Curwen wrote that Ardbraccan ‘is a modern edifice, erected by the former Bishop on a plan of the late Dr Beaufort; which unites much internal comfort with great external beauty and simple elegance, well designed and appropriated for the residence of so considerable a dignitary of the church. The grounds are laid out with great taste, and the luxuriant growth of the trees and shrubs affords incontestable evidence of the fertility of the soil.’
€1.7 million. This was rightly regarded as something of a coup, since when the property had first been offered for sale in 2005, the asking price had been €7.5 million. So the local authority had done well to secure this important part of its architectural heritage, located in the centre of the town. Since then a further sum in the region of €400,000 has been spent on repair of existing landscaping, the installation of new external lighting, and repair of garden structures. At the time of the initial purchase, one local councillor declared that ‘if properly developed and managed, the castle would be more than capable of paying for itself – and the potential spin-off benefits could transform Mallow.’ Note the use of the conditional ‘if’. here…
Cork County Council has declared that the work carried out in grounds of Mallow Castle is the first part of a three-phase development programme for the site and in February it was announced that a masterplan tender brief for the property is currently being prepared. In the meantime, that conditional ‘if’ must remain in place. On a recent weekend visit to Mallow Castle, a group of French tourists looked somewhat stunned as they entered the site to discover it heavily littered and the house firmly shut. In fact it is somewhat surprising that they managed to find their way to the place, since what is supposed to be a major tourist attraction appears un-signposted, with access located up a minor lane. But evidently local carousers know the spot well, and have no problem entering it even when the gates are closed: hence the abundant litter.
As the owner of any historic property could advise Cork County Council, looking after such a house is perforce a time-consuming and expensive business – but not looking after it will ultimately prove to be even more time-consuming and expensive. The installation of better security around the site would help deter unwanted visitors, and their litter (sundry notices advise the presence of CCTV, but there is precious little evidence of it). A few bins would not go amiss either. Furthermore it seems that the house has sat empty and unoccupied since being purchased by the council. An obvious way to discourage nocturnal trespassers would be to have people living onsite: get a tenant, or better yet several, into the house. This would be beneficial for the building which at present is visibly suffering from neglect (thereby increasing the cost of its eventual refurbishment, a cost to be borne – as ever – by the nation’s tax payers). Shutters are closed and curtains drawn across windows, the frames of which are rotting (leaving them more vulnerable to being broken and illegal access being gained to the building). Doors are likewise in poor condition and in at least one place roof tiles have slipped. What, one wonders, must be the state of the interior? What sort of example is Cork County Council setting to other owners of historic buildings by displaying so little interest in the welfare of one under its care? Can it really expect anybody else to act as guardian of our heritage when it manifestly fails to do so? Houses need to be occupied and used, otherwise they risk falling into decline. Such is the case here: what’s required now is more of the flair and imagination displayed by the authority when it made the decision to acquire the property. Reports and action plans can wait: a house cannot.
At the time of that purchase, another local politician announced, ‘This is a very significant development in unlocking the future potential of Mallow Castle as a tourism and heritage resource for all the people of Cork.’ For the moment that potential remains unrealised.
Evening at Ballymaloe, County Cork. The oldest part of the building is a mid-fifteenth century tower house constructed by the FitzGeralds of Imokilly: this was enlarged in 1602 by Sir John FitzEdmund FitzGerald. The property was later briefly occupied by William Penn when he was sent to manage his father’s estates in the area, after which it was owned by the first Earl of Orrery. The house was much enlarged on two occasions in the 18th century to assume its present appearance. It also regularly changed hands over several hundred years until being bought by the Allen family who since 1964 have run the place as a restaurant and country house hotel.
The granite portico of Oaklands, County Wexford. This late Georgian house is associated with the Tyndall family, the last of whom died in 1957: soon afterwards Oaklands was gutted by fire and pulled down. This is all that remains to indicate its appearance, although large blocks of cut stone litter the surrounding area. A bungalow has been built on the site.