An architectural tour of Ireland’s rich history

Mary Leland on two books that look at our past through some magnificent, and some ruined, buildings

An architectural tour of Ireland’s rich history

Irish Country HousesA Chronicle of Change

David Hicks

Collins Press, €39.99

Ireland in Brick and Stone The Island’s History in its Buildings

Richard Killeen Gill & Macmillan, €19.99 

THE dust-jacket of Irish Country Houses; A Chronicle of Change shows a photograph taken in 1897 of the departure from Adare Manor in County Limerick of the Duke and Duchess of York, overnight guests of the Earls of Dunraven.

Top-hatted coachmen and mounted police escorts await their party, and, despite the waiting teams of horses, the gravel is immaculate. Seen dimly within the arched doorway an aristocratic farewell is taking place. But someone is watching: the nursery-maid, or even perhaps the nurse herself, has opened an upstairs window to let her little charges observe the scene below. That glimpse of three or four small heads beside the uniformed servant, seen through the diamond-paned mullioned window, typifies the quality of this book. Here is a record of an event, although important guests were no unusual occurrence at Adare Manor. But it also shows the inner, continuing life of the house and its family, in this case a building which bore the stone sermon: ‘unless the Lord build the house, the labour is lost that built it’.

It is continuum which fascinates David Hicks. Even where his subject is derelict or in absolute ruins or only an ivy-choked ghost of its resplendent past he hauls that past to the forefront of his narrative. For this compilation he has worked with photographer Ellie Ross, whose images often suggest a poignant sensitivity married to the necessary architectural veracity. It may be however that his research through the archives of the National Library, the invaluable Country Life magazine, the muniment rooms of castles and keeps, or the surviving albums of their families is even more valuable; these retrieved photographs are startling in their detail. The story they portray is unfolded here. Designer and architectural technician David Hicks was propelled on his genealogical way by his curiosity about his own family, a curiosity now applied to others. While several properties in these pages are still in good health and good hands even they have endured the traumas of disinheritance, malicious destruction, economic and political upheaval and immense social change. Interesting though many of these may be, the archival discoveries have another visual impact in that they emphasise again and again what was once and what is now, what has been lost and what has been recovered reinvented.

It is tempting to suggest Hicks may be offering a soft-focus version of Richard Killeen’s survey of a series of buildings which carry within their fabric, location and usage the history of the Irish nation. Yet both writers are working to a purpose and while it is true that Hicks has chosen a somewhat romantic tone, he nevertheless adheres to an architectural discipline which he shares with Killeen. What Hicks can’t quite match however is Killeen’s pragmatism. ‘Irish Country Houses’ does include Áras an Uachtaráin, elegant in style and function as well as story, but Killeen’s book includes the dowdy red-brick St Luke’s in Drumcondra, cradle of localised Irish politics. How he links the stone severity of Gallarus Oratory near Dingle to Busarus in Dublin or to the airport at Knock is one of the pleasures of a book distinguished by its terse but good-humoured prose. Describing his choices as a series of personal snapshots Killeen, who operates in modern Irish life as Fergal Tobin, Publishing Director of Gill & Macmillan, explains his theory as ‘the simple and obvious proposition that history is about the transformation of land and landscape by human volition.’

Human legend had a part to play too, and Killeen is very good at re-evaluating (or debunking) folk fables from St Patrick to modern politics.

He takes an acerbic attitude to selective versions of this island’s story, and his somewhat sardonic assessments may be justified for example by what has happened at Gallarus, now so neatly walled and coach-enabled as to be bereft of all its delicate spirituality; anyone who doubted the importance of the campaign to protect Mullaghmore in the Burren some years ago need only visit poor Gallarus to feel a strong pang of shame. The Dingle peninsula was made for tourism, reflects Killeen at the Blasket Centre, adding that ‘Tourism consumes itself, consumes what it sells.’ At the same time he can’t help pointing out that ‘the food there is excellent’.

Some readers may wonder at his polemic: the bank collapse was the result of a culture as potent as ‘a medieval superstition’, benchmarking was ‘a shameless fraud’. But as he says, Killeen believes in transformation by human volition, and traces humanity from Drumcree church to Ormond Manor House, from Parnell’s Avondale to the Market Square in Thurles. It is hardly a surprise to read his comment on Clonfert Cathedral rebutting the juvenile version of Irish history ‘choked on its own self-pity’ and insisting that the coming of the Normans was ‘one of the best days the island ever saw.’

Some of the worst, or at least most shameful, days relate to several of the entries in the list of Irish country houses compiled by David Hicks. Those were the days of the burnings and also of the disappearance of many landed Irish families. They sold up and moved away as a result of the combined effects of the Wyndham Acts (ironically stemming from the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of 1903 to which Adare’s 4th Earl of Dunraven had made a significant contribution, although no relation of its author, George Wyndham, Chief Secretary for Ireland), the War of Independence and the Civil War. There were families too which simply died out, without male heirs, with daughters married abroad, bereft of sons lost to world wars and of the money required to pay death duties, multiple annuities and taxes. Among the survivors are houses which have just simply seen it all and endured through the worst of times. Others are houses where a family member has returned, such as Castle Freke in County Cork deserted by Lord Carbery in 1919 but now in the care of a great-nephew. There is no such potential rescuer for burned-out Castle Bernard in Bandon although some members of the original family remain on the estate, but at Wilton, in County Wexford, also a victim of arson in 1923, an important restoration scheme is under way.

At enormous Duckett’s Grove near Carlow the local authority is preserving the ruined castle itself while Hicks describes the restoration of the walled garden as a triumph, but it is a relief to move on from this extravagant pile to the more sedate and successful Ballymascanlon House, briefly the home of George Noble Plunkett, a Papal Count, Director of the National Museum and Ceann Comhairle in the early Dáil. Then there is Kilwaughter Castle in County Antrim, of which Hicks writes with some desperation: ‘For now this architectural masterpiece languishes in dereliction.’ Not so Gosford Castle in County Armagh with its 89 rooms and 40 out-buildings; sold for £1,000 in 2006 this is being transformed into generous apartments and apparently without suffering the violent interventions and adhesions which elsewhere attempt to keep some of these fine historic buildings alive, if not always well. There are tragedies in this book, some of our own making, but there are good outcomes too, and even if the intention of his early reference to ‘the house of the planter’ remains obscure, Hicks does us all a service in discovering and recording them so thoroughly.

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