A Dunkathel area home within reach of Cork city comes with optional multiple acres, says Tommy Barker.
Dunkathel, Cork €1.5/€1.85 million
Size: 4,000 sq ft on 28/52 acres
Bedrooms: 6 + 2
Bathrooms: 3 + 1
Best Feature: Unique slices of Cork history and gardens.
THERE’S a long history, incredible gardens and wooded grounds that wouldn’t look out of place in Sherwood Forest...plus, personalities aplenty in the case of Cork’s Dunsland House.
Over the past century, its visitors and guests have been as diverse as Éamon de Valera, and Hugh Grant, the later while filming on set in this very house, appropriately in a film called The Dawning set during the War of Independence.
It’s apt, as this quite great Victorian house itself with its then-timbered gables had been burned down in 1920, only to rise again, semi-Phoenix like, only predominantly as a single storey, quality home.
Readers of diverse ages will know one name above, Dev, if not the other, a certain Hugh Grant, and the house’s current generation of occupants have met and mingled with both.
There’s so much to say about Dunsland, they’ve even produced a book in the house’s honour, 50 pages of coffee-table-sized glossy publication, ranging from 17th century maps, including scans of historical documents, a roll-call of previous family owner names and details, personal asides and portraits of pets, along with stunning horticultural photographs, in all seasons of growth.
As Dunsland comes for sale this autumn, it’s as rare a property mix as the region’s well-heeled home-hunting citizens, or returning emigrants, might wish for: it’s the sort of purchase that only comes along every few generations, or half-century or so.
It’s now ‘reduced’ to a 4,000 sq ft home of huge character, with a well-kept two-bed gate lodge, and even-older, picturesque 18th/19th Century outbuildings in a sunny courtyard.
It has the stumpy remains of a very old tower or windmill by its front lawn, it is overlooked by the 1840s-built folly the Fr Mathew Tower (glimpsed in main pic above), and it can be bought on up to 51 acres of great, south-facing warm land, including walled garden, ancient woodland with some specimen, protected trees in a verdant glade, while its front elevation and formal rooms have a sweep of harbour views and vistas back to Blackrock Castle and the City of Cork, just a few miles to the west.
Truly, Dunsland straddles and criss-crosses so many segments and layers of fascinating Cork history, in a property package that’s now for sale after 55 years in Dowdall family ownership.
Following the death of Mrs Rosemary Dowdall in August 2015, agents Savills’ Cork offices who are selling for the family guide it at €1.5m on 28 surrounding acres, with a further 28 acres of farmland, mostly in tillage but in reality its multi-purpose land, for a further €350,000.
Many Cork people will have had glimpses of Dunsland over the past decade or two, as a portion of its grounds were in use as a Garden Centre, with gardens open to visitors, but truth be told, there’s far more to meet and to delight the eye than a cursory visit back then might have admitted.
The family home of the Dowdall clan since 1961, and just east of Cork city at Factory Hill, Kilcoolishal by Dunkathel, Dunsland is a home quite unlike most in the province.
It has roots going back to the early 1700s and to the Hoare family, and the eventual Victorian build here was owned from the 1880s by the Pike family who ran the Cork Steamship Company (also, like the Hoare family, private bankers) of Bessborough House.
A wonderful tale of alleged and ungentlemanly cheating at a card game, involving one Joseph Pike and Richard Pigott Beamish of nearby Ashbourne House is told as ‘the Pike Card Case’ by that chronicler of the great houses of Ireland, Mark Bence Jones in his book Twilight of the Ascendancy.
Dunsland was burned to the ground in 1920, after the then Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for the County of Cork, Joseph Pike, wrote a letter to the unionist Cork Constitution, decrying a Cork vote for Dominion Home Rule, at a time of heated upheaval and political shifts.
Pike wrote from Harrowgate in England, and retribution for his ‘incendiary’ letter was swift and incendiary.
A party of hooded and armed men visited Dunsland at night, and courteously ordered staff to vacate the house as it was to be burned.
They removed animals from the stables and it’s recorded that they even took a canary in its cage to safety from the house, before putting it to the torch in a late August night, 96 years ago.
With the aid of petrol “in ten minutes the southern wing overlooking the River Lee was burning like a mammoth furnace, sending flames one hundred feet high, which lit up the whole countryside.
Soon the fire travelled to the northern blocks, including outhouses and the entire structure, with its recherche furniture and priceless heirlooms of plate and other valuables,” reported the Cork Constitution, which described the destroyed two-storey, 37-room mansion as having been “one of the most comfortable and picturesquely situated in Ireland”.
(For those of a local historical bent, there’s a coincidental Pike family irony in the very recent 2016 fire and destruction of Cork’s precious yet neglected Vernon Mount House: it was the scene of the notorious late 1700s abduction of wealthy heiress Mary Pike by the notorious Sir Henry Brown Hayes, who had built Vernon Mount, and who endeavored to marry Miss Pike against her will).
Stories pile up richly, one of top of the other, in a house such as this, and when bought in 1961 by Finbarr and Rosemary Dowdall a political connection re-entered the frame as Finbarr Dowdall’s mother Jennie Dowdall (first ever woman Lord Mayor of Cork city, in 1959, representing Fianna Fáil) was very friendly with Éamon de Valera, who became a frequent visitor and guest during their decades here.
In fact, the Dowdall family have heard tales of Dev and a Civil War opponent, General Richard Mulcahy, arguing over the merits of Dunsland’s porridge on far-earlier visits to this house.
The Dowdalls bought Dunsland from the O’Neill family who only had the estate on Kilcoolishal’s Factory Hill (so called since Elizabethan times) for seven years, and other names associated with it were Reeves, Griffith, Allen, Litchfield, and Hoare.
The Dowdall family were known over generations as merchants, especially butter, and their early years and their decades at Dunsland (where seven children were reared, revelling in the outdoor wonders on the doorstep) saw them expand their interest into farming, especially fruit farming.
Today, sisters Deborah and Jane among the siblings now preparing to part with Dunsland, easily recall 5am starts in fields with raspberries or potatoes to be picked.
The family’s own high regard for this house is evident: via an Apple printing package, they’ve produced the affectionate and accurate ‘Dunsland’ book of the house, and Deborah also did the drone video footage of the house and its 50-plus acres for the sales campaign, showing its relation to the hillside and to Cork harbour.
Her drone filming completes, and in an IT-way updates, father Finbarr Dowdall’s own filmed footage of Dunsland.
An amateur filming buff, he once positioned himself on the roof of the family car, with 16mm camera, and had himself driven up the long, beech and laurel tree lined drive wending from gate lodge to main house, all the while focused on the changing dappled light and leaves.
A silent bit of film, it’s mesmeric.
That gate lodge where a Dowdall started his home movie is where movie-land subsequently arrived, in the mid 1980s, to add a sheen of Hollywood glamour to Dunsland.
The film crew preparing to shoot The Dawning, a 1988 British film, based on writer Jennifer Johnston’s novel, The Old Jest which had won the 1979 Whitbread Prize, were scouting locations in Munster for the filming of the War of Independence story of IRA/Anglo-Irish clashes, when they passed the just-painted cast iron railings at Dunsland’s gate lodge, and which caught their eye.
The scouts drove the long drive up to the house, introduced themselves and asked if they might use it as one of their historic home sets.
They spent £2,000 on flowers, it’s recalled, and the movie’s cast included Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Grant, Jean Simmons, Trevor Howard, Rebecca Pidgeon, Tara McGowran, Adrian Dunbar, and Mark O’Regan.
Although Jennifer Johnston reportedly didn’t like the film, it won awards at Montreal, Austin and elsewhere.
The Dawning was produced by Sarah Lawson, and other locations included Woodbine House, and Goat Island.
And, a bit like a movie set taken down and put back up, that’s what happened Dunsland in the 1920s: destroyed by fire, some of its original two-storey building fabric made its way back into the rebuild, completed by 1930 and comprising a F-shaped, multi-bayed single-storey house, with two attic rooms, set on a level perch on a commanding hilltop.
The ornate front entry projection, flat roofed with some stucco flourishes, is quite redolent of the original, with projecting gable-fronts along the rest of the slate roofed, long south elevation where triple, square-headed window opes and sash windows are a feature, flooding the best, southerly aspected rooms with daylight.
Notable is the length of the house’s spine, its connecting end-to-end hall.
It’s over 110’ from understated grand western end entrance to final east-end bedroom, and even at that it’s smaller, and shallower, than the original, as old photographs show a Victorian glasshouse at the ‘old’ Dunsland eastern gable.
The long, feature hall is home to many paintings and pictures, many of Dowdall family relevance, amongst them a steely sketch of Éamon de Valera.
Agents Catherine McAuliffe and Michael O’Donovan of Savills describe the interior as elegant, as indeed its formal rooms are, and they’ve been well minded, and polished, with some exemplary fireplaces and chimney-pieces, and extra tall ceiling heights adding to the airiness.
It’s in fine fettle, add Savills, and there is indeed a curious air of historic home, yet one that in its physicality is less than 100 years old. Its c 4,000 sq ft include the two best reception rooms, a den, a breakfast room by the front entrance, bathrooms, four ground floor bedrooms and two attic rooms.
At the house’s side, by the glorious sun-trap enclosed courtyard and its mix of very well kept Victorian and Georgian stone outbuildings, is a kitchen/casual dining room and utility, handily close enough to the breakfast and dining rooms, as ‘back in the day’ staff might thankfully have noted.
Might there be staff again?
While it’s almost certainly to be bought for continuing use as a private and hospitable home, it could and would make an ideal Ballymaloe-esque spot for guests and professional entertaining, if owned/run by a chef and/or host of note.
It’s easy to imagine the courtyard buildings and enclosures once more housing herb beds, kitchen gardens, walled garden and orchard, many clucking hens, and a cookery school, and among the buildings is a multi-purpose 1,000 sq ft games room, plus there’s the 840 sq ft gate lodge.
In the hands of the right buyer, might it grandly go up once more, to a two-storey home?
It’s got the grounds, and the demeanor, to justify extra spending and upwardly mobile thoughts.
Dunsland’s gardens, acreage and grounds so close to the city (the Jack Lynch Lee tunnel’s a two minute drive away too) are as equally a trump card, if the word ‘trump’ isn’t by now a debased descriptive currency?
Many of its trees have preservation orders, and splendours include many camellias, two enormous tulip trees, the full panoply of evergreens as well as acers, horse- and sweet-chestnut trees.
There’s an unfeasibly pretty glade with well-worn and well-tended, stone-slabbed paths scythed down through woodland that must be a blaze of bluebells in spring, and it comes to an end by a harbour-bound stream and high boundary wall.
The perfect picture is framed by an ancient, slender arched stone bridge just wide enough for a person to confidently cross.
In childhood imaginations, this is where a Robin Hood might defend a Sherwood path, or court a Maid Marian: for the equally romantic (or, commercially minded) , it’s a winsome wedding photograph backdrop in the wings.