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Saturday, June 30, 2012
Tommy Barker visits a Cork landmark, a truly unique family home
What’s more strange? Descending from a round tower to fetch up in a luxury home, or to go from your super-comfortable home into your galleried entrance hall, and see the immense stone base of a neo-Gothic round tower standing there?
Either way you look at it, the turreted Fr Mathew Tower on Cork’s eastern hilly flanges is an oddity — but it’s a delightful one, quirky, fun — and almost practical, even, in a round-about sort of way.
Built to commemorate Fr Theobald Mathew, the mid 19th century apostle of temperance, it has a bit of a cheek — its tower basement is currently being used as a wine cellar.
Fr Mathew — who signed up 600,000 followers in England during his lifetime, may be sanguine enough about the wine cellar’s current presence, however, as the celebrations of the tower’s completion in 1846 - which he attended - was marked by much quaffing of champagne by the city’s high and mighty.
Unlike Cork city centre’s legendary Fr Mathew Statue, the statue of the Capuchin friar gracing the pristine two-acres of grounds around this private home and its attached memorial tower is cast-concete, a replica of one by the great Irish sculptor John Hogan. At one stage, when the tower was derelict the statue lost its head; fortunately, it was discovered by art-astute Richard Wood, and now Fr Mathew’s head is back on good shoulders.
This turreted memorial tower is set loftily on a Glanmire/Glounthaune hillside at Mount Patrick, and has become part of Cork and Ireland’s social and ecclesiastical history over a century and a half.
Despite the onset of the Famine, the foundation stone was laid in 1843, and the Gothic structure was finished and officially opened in November ’46. It was built by a local merchant tailor, William O’Connor, who had met with the Tipperary-born Fr Mathew, in London’s Strand and who felt he deserved to be honoured in his home country.
The great, and the good, and the grateful of the day, attended the official opening, and the Cork Examiner reported "neither money nor art was spared in making it a noble specimen of turret architecture" noting that an apartment fireplace in the 16’ diameter tower had "a small basso relievo figure of Fr Mathew, holding Britannia and Erin by either hand, surrounded by the emblems of both countries; and from the centre hangs a very beautiful chandelier."
Fast forward 165 years or so, and the superbly restored tower has that repaired chimneypiece in pride of place — complete with chandelier.
The graceful tower, about 80’ high with a further 20’ of further slender construction for heightened vantage-taking, was designed by GR Pain, the architect of Blackrock Castle, and so it’s perhaps appropriate that each’s turrets have views to the other, along the River Lee and Lough Mahon.
Extraordinary as its genesis and construction was in the tough 1840s, it is matched now by a remarkable transformation and conservation by its current owners, who’ve worked on it since 1997.
After a decade and half in occupation, and huge investment of time, passion, skills and money, the tower’s back in rude health once more, home over its several levels to a cellar, a dining room, next up is a formal drawing room, then a romantic bedroom, and it’s all topped off by two viewing levels.
Cork Examiner reports of the 1970s and ’80s had lamented this tower’s decline to dereliction, and pilfering after its caretakers Michael and Mary Feeley moved out in 1962, having reared seven children here. In 1982 a Cork family, Tom and Ann Joyce bought it, and architect Stephen Hyde designed the private home now grafted on to the city side of the tower.
They sold up in 1996, and the next and current owners took the 80’ tower and adjoining house to new heights in terms of comfort and conservation. Its mature gardens now are finer than they were when city folk would promenade here to elevated Mount Patrick to admire the Lee views.
The tower and house come up for sale this summer with agents Michael O’Donovan and Sheila O’Flynn of Sherry FitzGerald, guiding at €1.15m. They say that as well as being most literally a Cork landmark, "little do people realise that — rather than being a dusty old monument — that it is in fact a truly unique family home."
"It’s built on a grand scale. It’s historic, it’s a little bit eccentric, but for all that it has a lovely warmth and charm and — strangely enough for a property of this size — it is quite manageable."
For anyone who wants a place and a quality home more than just a little bit different — it is, literally a place to look up to and to live up to.
It wasn’t just money the owners lavished here, they also did a lot of the physical work, and given the ‘man of the house’s training was as a carpenter, he can rightly take credit for some exceptional joinery. Notable are the 100 hand-fitted cherrywood steps in the tower’s circular stairwell, supported by clanking chains down the core. He also crafted the hall’s part-curving, part-floating stairs and balcony in oak and cast iron, set off by a wrought iron chandelier.
That linking entrance hall between tower and main house is suitably dramatic in anyone’s book, and could suit as a hotel reception for its grandeur, yet feels almost domestic thanks to the contrasting softness of the decor — just throw in a clatter of children on bikes and trikes, and call the place home.
Every inch of the original 1980s house has been overhauled and upgraded, and truth be told, it’s both oddity and practicality at once.
It has split-level family rooms at the end of the enormous kitchen/dining room, with an exceptional one-off kitchen in solid ash and topped with black granite, with a large, multi-level kitchen island. It was made by ORM/Cash and Carry, whose massive workshop is nearby, and the firm also did all of the house’s built-ins, including the high-end ones in the master bedroom’s wall of robes. The main block of house, with its roof curving to the western end, in deference to the tower’s circularity, has up to five bedrooms in all, with two en suites, and the master bedroom is palatial, with dressing room, good bathroom, huge storage, and has access to a large outdoor viewing terrace over the roof of the four-car garage: that terrace is also accessible from the family living room, making it great for outdoor dining.
Other rooms include a first floor living room with French doors to viewing balconies, plus a den, and although the layout appears a bit erratic, it works in a circular way thanks to two sets of stairs in the main house, plus the 100 or so steps over in the main tower with its character-full, great stacked round rooms with Gothic, timber sash widows and a high comfort factor.
Decoratively, the two elements of the entire package are well done; rich but not extravagantly so, and the owners commissioned some special touches, including a stained glass window, to complement the building’s extremes: common among both ‘halves’ (one tall, the other broad) are hand-done paint finishes and murals, the most extravagant effect quite rightly is in the tower to add to the magic and mystery. There’s a graphic sun on the ceiling of the tower’s main drawing rom, while the Gothic windows have trompe l’oeuil faux painted stonework. An appropriate touch is the decoupage use of colour-washed images and snippets of the tower’s history, pasted onto the walls.
While the tower was placed both for prominence and for vantage, for the southerly views it would command over the city, river and Little Island, time and encroaching greenery has filled in some of the near vistas, and development of business parks has marched out eastwards under Mount Patrick, yet are enough away so as not to intrude. And, with two glorious private acres at its beck and call, it really does have an oasis feel, enhanced by some very old trees including the two original oak trees planted as the same time as the tower itself was built in the 1840s.
The owners drafted in noted landscaped designer Brian Cross to lay out their terraces and lawns, and changed the drive so that there’s now a circular route to and from the house from the electric entrance gates. Factor in two water feature ponds among the tiers, rhododendron and azaleas, and some very naturalistic planting among the wending paths, and well, peace comes dripping slow at Fr Mathew Tower.
VERDICT: At home with history.
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