Rediscovering Hidden Ireland

EVEN driving down this country’s rural roads, much of Ireland is hidden, more of it is simply overlooked, abandoned, or ignored. And, some of it is making its way back – as can be seen in a day in the wandering company of someone like the multi-faceted George Gossip.

He’s one of the pro-active personalities behind the Hidden Ireland collection of family-owned Irish period homes open to paying guests.

Gossip, along with his Galway-born wife Susie, saved one abandoned house from dereliction: Ballinderry Park near Ballinasloe may be known to TV viewers for its mid-2000s painstaking renovation, featured on Duncan Stewart’s About the House. The rescue and reinstatement of this 1700s, ‘small’ Georgian farmhouse was overseen by architectural historian and conservationist Jeremy Williams.

In some guises George Gossip may be recalled as a skilled chef at the one-time Gossip family owned Ballinkill House in Waterford, or the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, where he gives acclaimed visiting guest classes in game cookery (and he’s giving residential classes in wild game cookery at Ballinderry November 19 to 21,

And, Gossip seems to know both the owners, and their backgrounds, of every second Irish period country house of note, north and south of the border, and has just recently started taking small visiting groups on field trips around some of Ireland’s most hidden homes and architectural treasures. They range from national monuments like the pre-Christian carved granite CastleStrange Stone, to ruins and follies, a sort of ‘off-piste’ series of rambles throwing up historically fascinating finds, and losses.

The Irish Examiner, and a small group of house guests, recently gave up a weekend for one of Gossip’s guided trips – and will be curious and quick to ramble down overgrown house drives and avenues again, and again.

Lost and even willfully neglected houses and structures, from ice houses and 19th century plunge pools, bridges and out-buildings and stables, have long been a fascination for him: his photographs, for example, graced the covers of the 1980s publication, Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, co-written by the Knight of Glin, David Griffin and Nicholas Robinson, husband of former President Mary Robinson.

(Reprising and picking up on that rich thread of evocative Great House decay is Abandoned Mansions of Ireland, by Tarquin Blake, published this week by Collins Press with a month-long photo exhibition running at Cork’s Vision Centre (see www.abandonedireland.com) – so the chronicling of decline continues.)

In his own area of east Galway and south Roscommon, Gossip reckons he can do a whole series of individual loops and drives, visiting well-know spots like Clonmacnoise and Clonfert, or Roscommon Castle, and then also taking less-travelled treks to the likes of ivy-bearded ruins, strong houses, memorials, mausoleums and family tombs, belvedere viewing perches on top of churches, Sheela na Gig stones and forlorn, formal entry gates and archways to great estates which no longer exist, having vanished off the landscape.

At Mote Park, Roscommon, for example, a triumphal arch The Lion’s Gate (possibly designed by James Gandon, for the Crofton family of landlords who controlled 11,000 acres) is ironically mocked by virtue of having farm sheds built up right against, livestock catered for under the impotent glare of the majestic lion up top.

The first stop of our day was at fenced-off Woodlawn House, where renovation works have started on the grand Galway mansion and buildings of this 8,000 acre estate (the Dublin Galway rail line was diverted in its 1800s heyday to provide a train station for the Trent/Ashtown family.)

Another visit day saw the Roscommon Kelly family starting conservation of the tall Georgian farm dwelling, the 1760s Scregg House near Ahascragh.

It is being renovated, and weather-proofed, having recently got modest grants from the Irish Georgian Society for re-roofing and window repair. What’s telling is it’s the same generation renewing as that left it 20 years ago.

Leaving the Gossips’ fully restored Ballinderry Park the next day, en route to Galway city, the new motorway’s anodyne layer of tarmac is yet another remove from the Irish byroads which already mask so much of Ireland’s heritage buildings; that’s where Hidden Ireland comes in, inviting visitors to “try the road less travelled by.”

- See: www.hiddenireland.com

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