One of James Gandon’s designs for the façade of Emo Court, County Laois. In the 1780s the architect was employed by enlightened patron John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington to come up with plans for a new house on his country estate. This is one of Gandon’s proposals, and interesting to compare with Emo Court as eventually built. The process was devilled with setbacks, beginning with the Lord Portarlington’s unexpected death in 1798, by which time only the shell of the house had been constructed. It took more than sixty years, and the involvement of a number of other architects, before work on the building was finally completed. As a result and reflecting changes in taste, various alterations, external and internal, were made to the original scheme. Many of Gandon’s original drawings, plus those of his successors, are currently on display in the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin. Below is one of the Gandon proposals for the garden front, and a photograph of the same prospect today.
The Catholic Committee (sometimes called the Catholic Convention) was a body set up in 1757 to campaign for the repeal of the Penal Laws, and greater religious and political freedom for members of the Roman Catholic church. One of its founders was the antiquarian Charles O’Conor who lived in County Roscommon, and it is likely that as a result of his involvement other men in the same part of the country became involved with the committee. Hugh O’Beirne was among this number, a merchant based in Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim who eventually became sufficiently affluent that he was able to acquire several thousand acres of land and build himself a residence at Jamestown, County Leitrim. In late 1792 Theobald Wolfe Tone, then Assistant Secretary of the Catholic Committee, encountered Hugh O’Beirne at a gathering in Dublin and wrote, ‘Met “Met Mr. O’Beirne of Co Leitrim, a sensible man. . . says the common people are up in high spirits and anxious for the event. Bravo! Better to have the peasantry of one county than twenty members of Parliament.’
Hugh O’Beirne took the Oath of Allegiance to the United Irishmen but does not seem to have been penalized for his association with the society in the aftermath of 1798: in the years before his death in 1813, he was a Justice of the Peace for Roscommon. He was succeeded by his son Francis, likewise a J.P. and also Deputy Lieutenant for County Leitrim. In 1843 he enlarged the small Catholic chapel built by his father for the people of Jamestown; behind this Francis also erected a school and schoolmaster’s house. On his death in 1854, the estate – which at its height ran to over 7,500 acres in County Leitrim (and almost another 250 in neighbouring Roscommon) – passed to his son Hugh. His children seem to have been the last of the O’Beirnes to have lived in Jamestown, one son, likewise called Hugh, entered the British Diplomatic Service and along with Lord Kitchener drowned when the vessel they were on, HMS Hampshire, was sunk by a German U-boat off the Orkney coast in June 1916.
The house shown in today’s photographs, Tinny Park, County Roscommon, was until recently owned by a branch of the same family. It is believed to date from around the mid-19th century and is a typical gentleman farmer’s residence, complete with handsome yard to the rear. Of two storeys over basement with a central door approached via a short flight of stone steps, the interior conforms to the usual country house plan, albeit on a small scale: double doors to the rear of the two main reception rooms lead to smaller spaces, and the entrance hall is largely taken up by a staircase. Unoccupied for the previous ten years, Tinny Park was offered for sale for the first time in the summer of 2016, the price on just over six acres was a modest €250,000. It duly sold and, evidently, refurbishment work began, not all of it advantageous: old photographs show the exterior covered in render, all of which has been stripped away. This work now looks to have stalled and when visited last winter the house wore a forsaken appearance. One can only hope that restoration has since resumed (and that in due course the exterior will be correctly re-rendered).
In May 1717 Robert, first Viscount Molesworth wrote from England to his wife Letitia with advice of a planned return to Ireland and the fact that ‘I will carry with me the best architect in Europe.’ The latter was a young Florentine, Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737) who had been brought to London in 1714 by Lord Molesworth’s eldest son John, for the previous three years British Envoy to Florence. It was presumably there that he met Galilei and when Molesworth was recalled to London, he invited the architect, then aged 23, to accompany him with the expectation of commissions from English clients. The Molesworths, père et fils, were key figures in a group of enthusiastic cultural patrons described by the viscount as the ‘new Junta for Architecture.’ Their mission: to reconfigure architectural design on these islands in the neo-classical style, or what one of them called ‘Grecian & best taste’. Although Galilei spent four years in England, with a six-month interlude in Ireland in 1718, and despite backing from the Molesworths and other members of their circle, he achieved almost no success: for example, he made designs for new churches then being commissioned in London but none of them was executed. Similarly, despite being recommended by Lord Molesworth to design St Werburgh’s in Dublin in 1715, he did not get the job: the viscount later wrote that those behind the commission were ‘uncapable of comprehending what an artist Galilei is’. The fact that he was a Roman Catholic is thought also not to have helped his cause. Understandably in August 1719 he returned to Florence, where he was created Engineer of Court Buildings and Fortresses by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Despite further importuning from the Molesworths and others, he never returned to this part of the world. In 1730, the Florentine pope Clement XII invited him to Rome where his best-known work, the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano (1732) can still be seen: he died in the city five years after its completion.
Marmaduke Coghill was born in Dublin in 1673, eldest son of Sir John Coghill, Judge of the Prerogative Court and one of the Masters in Chancery. Marmaduke was something of an infant prodigy, entering Trinity College at the age of fourteen and graduating as a Bachelor of Law four years later. At 19 he was a member of the Irish House of Commons, sitting for the next 50 years first representing the Borough of Armagh and then Dublin University. In due course liken his father before him he served as a judge of the Prerogative Court and later became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ireland. He was described by a contemporary as being ‘a zealous and active friend, and of an engaging and affable manner, but he was not blessed with good looks’ (another account called him ‘a fat apoplectic looking old gentleman with short legs and a shorter throat’).
Following his father’s death in 1699 Marmaduke Coghill inherited land on the outskirts of Dublin, in an area called Clonturk but now known as Drumcondra. Initially he lived there in an extant house which still stands, Belvedere (or Belvidere), of which more on another occasion. However, in the early 1720s he embarked on building a new residence not far away, Drumcondra House. Here he lived with his sister Mary, like him unmarried, until his death in 1738; five years later she built a church close to the house and inside erected a monument to her brother sculpted by Peter Scheemakers. Following her death, Drumcondra House passed to a niece, Hester Coghill who was married to Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville. The family subsequently rented out the property as a private residence until the early 1840s when acquired by a Vincentian priest who established a Missionary College on the site, All Hallows. A few years ago the property passed into the hands of Dublin City University to become part of that institution’s campus.
So what are the links between Drumcondra House and Alessandro Galilei? As mentioned, the latter had scant success gaining commissions while in either England or Ireland, but the one building with which he has always been associated is Castletown, County Kildare. While Galilei was in Ireland with the Molesworths, he seems to have met William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and the country’s richest man: it was for Conolly that the architect proposed the basic design of Castletown’s façade, although work on the building did not begin until 1722 (by which time Galilei had long since returned to Italy) and is thought to have been overseen by Edward Lovett Pearce. Marmaduke Coghill was a friend and political ally of Conolly, so there is no reason why he should not also have met Galilei and indeed likewise have asked him for advice and designs for his own new residence in Drumcondra. To the immediate east of the main house is the shell of a classical temple (see below), its pedimented stone façade featuring a central doorcase with segmental pediment flanked by windows with regular pediments on either side of which is a pilaster topped with Corinthian capital. The design for this building has long been attributed to Galilei, but why not also therefore the façade of the house which the temple faces? As can be seen by the photograph on the top of this page, it has many of the same features albeit on a larger scale, suggesting that whoever was responsible for one was also architect of the other. As Maurice Craig once wrote of the façade, ‘there is nothing much resembling it anywhere else in Ireland.’ Matters are complicated because the south face of Drumcondra House, altogether more severe and pure (a two-storey pedimented breakfront imposed on the central portion of an otherwise plain, three-storey, seven-bay block) was designed Coghill by Edward Lovett Pearce in 1726. And of course, that was precisely when Pearce was also working at Castletown for Coghill’s friend William Conolly. All of which suggests that Galilei achieved more in Ireland than is usually thought, and certainly more than he ever did in England. Meanwhile, as these other images will show, the interiors of Drumcondra House, currently undergoing a gradual programme of restoration and refurbishment, reveal some of the most intact early 18th century panelled rooms in the country. A building worthy of further study.
O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.
The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.
They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,—
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.
Ghost House by Robert Frost.
Crossdrum Lower, County Meath – one of the houses featured in The Irish Aesthete: Ruins of Ireland (Cico Books), now available to order from your favourite local bookshop or online from Amazon…
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
‘We are,’ they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will still be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
And Yet the Books by Czeslaw Milosz.
Photographs of the library at Clonalis, County Roscommon (https://clonalis.com)
The garden front of Clonalis, County Roscommon. Ancestral seat of the O’Conor Don (one of Ireland’s most ancient families, descended from the country’s last High Kings), the present house replaced an earlier one elsewhere on the estate. As seen today, Clonalis was designed in 1878 by Frederick Pepys Cockerell, one of his few Irish commissions. It was one of the very first houses in Ireland constructed using concrete, with a cement render finish to the exterior and in a manner that is customarily judged to have blended elements of the Queen Anne style with Italianate classicism. The entrance front (below) is dominated by a three storey tower that projects forward to create a porch for the door on the ground floor. Clonalis is significant for being one of the rare Irish houses still to remain in the hands of the original family
More from Clonalis early in the new year…
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.
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?
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.