Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Happy New Year to all our readers

Apologies for the lack of posts in recent times. I've been having some Internet issues since Christmas which has left me without any online access. I do hope to be up and running though within the next few days.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Knockdrin Castle, Co. Westmeath

The lakeland county of Westmeath is situated in Ireland's midlands. A varied landscape, scattered with bogland and lakeland, the county is well-populated with historic country houses. Possibly the best known are the stunning Belvedere House and Tullynally Castle. Less well-known is Knockdrin Castle, situated just outside the town of Mullingar. Knockdrin is yet another great Irish house to date from the early nineteenth century. The castle was built by the 6th Baronet Levinge. The Levinges had come to Ireland during the Williamite Wars of the 1690s, and were rewarded for the efforts by being granted lands at High Park, which the 6th Baronet would rename 'Knockdrin'. The area which corresponded to High Park had been originally in the possession of the Tuites, a Catholic family with Anglo-Norman lineage. 

Like many great landowners at the time, Sir Richard was undoubtedly taken by the thirst for all things Gothic that was sweeping through the Irish countryside in the early nineteenth century. Levinge initially selected the respected architect, Sir Richard Morrison to design his new castle. Morrison we are told completed two designs, neither of which were accepted however. Levigne then turned to Dublin architect and builder James Shiel. Shiel acquired some notoriety for the work he carried out on Lord Longford's castle at nearby Tullynally. Shiel's designs were of course carried out in the Gothic style, containing all the usual Gothic architectural accouterments. Shiel may have re-worked part of an existing eighteenth century house, although records are inconclusive to prove this. The Levinges continued to live at the castle until the 1940s. During the war the castle was commandeered by the Irish Army. After the war Knoickdrin was purchased by a German family, the von Prondzynskis, who continue to own it to this day. 

The central building may originally have been an eighteenth century house reworked in the Gothic style by Shiel. 

The gate lodge was a later addition, added in 1860. 

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Castleboro House, Castleboro, Co. Wexford

Not far from the villages of Clonroche and Rathnure stands what was once one of Ireland's great country houses: Castleboro. Now little more than an abandoned, derelict shell, it symbolized the wealth and prosperity of Ireland's landed classes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its burning and subsequent abandonment in the early twentieth century in turn were, however, signs of the difficulties that many landed families would face from then on. Castleboro presently sits in a precarious position; abandoned and open to the elements, a fate shared by unfortunately far too many great Irish houses. 

Castleboro traces its history to the 1780s when a local landed family, the Carews, erected a considerably large Classical house. They had been land owners in counties Wexford and Waterford by this stage for over a century. Improvements were made to it c. 1819, but was ravaged by fire in 1839. By then Casteboro was the principle possession of Robert Carew, 1st Baron Carew. The Oxford educated Carew was a long serving MP for Wexford, serving also as lord lieutenant of County Wexford. Carew choose the architect, Daniel Robertson to complete his renovated house. Robertson had worked extensively in both England and Ireland, and had completed a number of houses in Ireland's south east when he was commissioned by Carew. The new house would be Palladian in style, partly incorporating the remains of the previous Castleboro House.  

The image above shows the characteristically Palladian style of Robertson's house. The central block contained elements of the burned house, but was enlarged, and given its Palladian appearence by the addition of the two storey wings on either side. The outstanding element of the central block was the Ionic porte cocheré. This portico (porch) allowed horse-drawn carriages to pass through so as the passengers would be protected from the weather when alighting. 

One of the greenhouses located at Castleboro. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Bessborough House (now Kildalton College), Fiddown, Co. Kilkenny

While many of us who come from the south-east of Ireland will no doubt be familiar with this week's featured country house, we probably know it by its modern name: Kildalton College. As I child I remember going on a school tour to Kildalton, an agricultural college run by Teagesc, the Irish agriculture and food authority. If my memory serves me correctly our visit focused little on the house's long and illustrious history, but was concerned more with matters agricultural! Thus for many years I presumed the house had always been referred to as Kildaton. In more recent times I learned a little more about it and its history, coming to learn that when it was conceived it was given the name of Bessborough House. Named after the earls of Bessborough, the house dates from the 1740s, although much altered in the twentieth century. The family for whom Bessborough House was built, the Ponsonbys, were an aristocratic family of English decent. The peerage 'earl of Bessborough' was created in 1739 (previously the family's senior title was 'Viscount Duncannon' and 'Baron Bessborough') for Brabazon Ponsonby. The first earl had previously served as M.P. for Newtownards in Co. Down and later for Co. Kildare and had recently married Sarah Margetson of Bishopscourt Hall near Nass, Co. Kildare when building began on his new home.

Brabazon's marriage to the wealthy Sarah Margetson may have spurred him onto commissioning his new home near the small village of Fiddown. The architect he favoured for his project was Francis Bindon (d. 1765). Though more well-known as a portrait painter, Bindon's architectural portfolio was not insignificant; his most famous work being Russborough House, Co. Wicklow. Ponsonby's new home was designed in the Classical style: a four storey nine bay central building flanked on either side by extending wings; a common addition to many Palladian houses. The porch seen in the image above was an addition from the late nineteenth century.

Bessborough House continued to be one of the family homes into the twentieth century. In 1923 the house was burnt and severely damaged. A thorough and complete reconstruction, faithful to the original designs, took place and was completed by 1929. However, the Ponsonbys were never again to reside at Bessborough, having relocated to Stansted Park near Chichester in England. Bessborough was house was in turn purchased in 1940 by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a male Catholic religious who established a novitiate there. It continued to be used for this purpose until the late 1960s. In 1971 it was bought by Teagesc who established an agricultural college there.

Lord and Lady Bessborough 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Moydrum Castle, Athlone, Co. Westmeath

A town of some 20,000 people, Athlone is best-known for being at the geographical centre of Ireland. An historic town enlarged by the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century, it boasts a number of sites worthy of a visit. Not far from the town is a site not normally on visitors' 'to see' list: Moydrum Castle. While not as ancient as the town's Norman castle, Moydrum nonetheless has an interesting history, connected primarily with the Handcock family. Like a great many of Irish landowning families, the Handcocks came to Ireland in the seventeenth century, in the wake of the Cromwellian conquest. Although  one of the leading landowners in the midlands, they remained without a title, or peerage, until 1812, when William Handcock was created 1st Baron Castlemaine. An MP for Westmeath, this title, we are told, was granted largely as a result of his support for the passing of the Act of Union in 1801, in which the Irish parliament in Dublin was dissolved. William had already married favourably, being wed to Florinda Trench, daughter of the 1st earl of Clancarthy. 

The castle seen in the picture above was largely the work of an early nineteenth century refurbishment of an already existing house. The original house was erected c. 1750, and was most probably a typical Irish country house incorporating elements of the Classical style. As architectural tastes began to change in the early nineteenth century the house was given a Gothic appearance, changing it from a 'house' to a 'castle. This was done so around 1812, under the supervision of Sir Richard Morrison. Morrison obtained an impressive reputation for 'gothicising' houses, one of the most famous examples being Shelton Abbey in Co. Wicklow, which I featured on the blog some months back. From the images one can easily see how the the existing house was given its Gothic appearance; the turrets on the four corners, the off-centred tower with its great Gothic window, and the crenelations, all giving  it  the 'castle' feeling.

The castle remained in the hands of the Handcock family into the twentieth century. Like many country houses Moydrum was caught up in the atrocities committed during the Civil War. In 1921 the house was burned by the local IRA brigade and rendered uninhabitable. The family subsequently relocated to England with the house being left in the ruinous state that one can see today. An interesting aside is that the house was used on the cover of the U2 album The Unforgettable Fire in 1982 and has subsequently become a popular destination for the band's many fans! 

Friday, 5 July 2013

Castlewellan Castle, Castlewellan, Co. Down

Located some thirty or so miles south of Belfast, the historic town of Castlewellan (in Irish Caisleán Uidihilín- Uidililín's castle) sits in the shadows of the famous Mourne Mountains. The town owes much of its history to Annesley family. Of English decent the family established themselves in the area in the  1740s, purchasing a standing castle from the Magennis family. Presumably they used the castle as their principle dwelling place until the mid-nineteenth century century, when the present castle was erected. In the meantime the family had made considerable improvements to Castlewellan, erecting two noble squares at opposite ends of the town. In 1789, Francis Charles was created first Earl Annesley. The castle we see today was built for the fourth earl, William Richard. The earl, who also served as an MP for an English constituency, ordered work to commence for his new castle in the early 1850s. He selected the Scot William Burn as architect. In Ireland Burn had been well-known for the magnificent Muckross House in Killarney, Co. Kerry but had an impressive reputation as was of the leading proponents of the Scots Baronial style, a style which he went on to employ at Castlewellan.

Built at the considerable sum of just over £18,000 the castle was completed by 1859. Essentially a large four storey rectangular shaped tower house, the family motto virtutis amore (from the love of valour) is proudly displayed over the castle's main entrance. It remained in the hands of the Annesley's until the 1960s, when it passed to the Northern Irish Department of Agriculture. In 1973 it was badly damaged by a terrorist bomb while in the following year it was purchased by a Christian organisation who turned it into a retreat and conference centre. It continues to act as such to this day.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Rossmore Castle, Co. Monaghan

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that a good number of the featured houses and castles no longer exist. Some have been demolished, some burned deliberately, while others have simply been victims of neglect. So when finding a country house that you did not know had existed there is always that initial sense of awe and excitement, tinged with a little sadness. This unfortunately was the case with this week's featured entry, Rossmore Castle. To be honest I was completely unfamiliar with it, and came across it by chance when looking for images of the more well-known Castle Leslie. It was a pleasant surprise though. The beautiful castle was situated on the outskirts of Monaghan Town. The castle seen below was built in two stages, and both date from the nineteenth century. Rossmore was built for Warner Westenra (1765-1842), the second baron Rossmore. The Westerna's, whose lineage was Dutch, had inherited the title upon the death of the first baron, Robert Cunninghame (d. 1801). The house continued as the principle residence of the Westernas until the 1950s, when dry rot eventually forced the family to relocate to another property within the grounds. The house was ultimately doomed, being demolished in 1974. 

Lord Rossmore commissioned William Vitruvius Morrison to erect a new home. Morrison might be familiar to readers of this blog, having designed both Glenarm Castle and Templemore Abbey. Work commenced in 1829, with Tudor Gothic the chosen style. Much of this earliest house can be seen on the  left of the picture above, in the form of the large square turreted tower and adjoining wing. Significant additions were made in the 1850s, this time in the Scots baronial style, making it one of the largest country houses in the lakeland counties. 

While the quality of this image is not perfect it really does illustrate the size of the castle well. It also shows more clearly the two buiulding stages, with the ealrier Tudor style house on the left, and the Scots baronial wing to the right.