Wall Street | Behind Mansion Walls | The Writing on the Wall
Is Ashford the Los Angeles of Ireland? No. But it does have its very own Bel-Air. Mansion, not zip code. Originally called Cronroe, Bel-Air in County Wicklow not surprisingly got its name from an early 20th century American owner, clearly feeling homesick. The original name lives on in nearby Cronroe Lane. Right from the get-go, it’s had a back yard for dilettantish partying. In the 18th century, fairs were held on the real estate. Tents erected, punch and whiskey sold, and a good time had by all. A forerunner of Glastonbury or Electric Picnic. These days, the party is more likely to be indoors for sure.
Missing from Burke’s Guide, here’s the architectural summation. The current house harks back to 1890. Period. Typical of the twilight moments of the 19th century, extreme Victoriana is clearly on the wane allowing the early plainer trappings of Edwardiana to emerge. Red brick has given way to grey render. Detailing is concentrated on the entrance: a gabled campanile rising past the hipped roofs forms a pyramidal silhouette. The timber panelled double front door below a large plain fanlight is framed by floral capped columns. Segmental arched two pane sash windows are either single, in couples or threesomes. Some are set in canted or boxy days. Stepping inside, the timber staircase takes off with great gusto. Not quite Lissan House; nevertheless a flight of fancy.
It all really got going in 1716 when Sir John Eccles, the Collector of the Port of Dublin, rocked up. He was descended from the Scottish Barony of Eccles. Settling down, his son Hugh built the original house in 1750. An Eccles generation or two later, Cronroe was sold to Julius Casement in 1862. After it was burned down in the 1880s, Julius built the present house. His rather better known relative was his cousin Sir Roger Casement. Roger spent many summer vacations at Cronroe. Outbuildings and stables with light gothick touches appear to predate the house.
In 1934 its American owner Nicholas Burns took over. Despite selling the house to the Murphy family just three years later, the name stuck. Tim and Bridie Murphy converted Bel-Air to a hotel and riding school with the help of their three daughters Ita, Ena and Fildelma. In 1980 Fidelma and her husband Bill Freeman took over. A third generation of siblings William, Aileen, Margaret and Noni now run the show. For our hosts it’s a full house party; no carriages required for guests. This house breathes us. Disco in the drawing room. Speakeasy in the library. Encapsulation of feeling in the bedroom. You’re either in the moment or you’re not.
William Murphy explains, “This is a home rather than just a hotel. It’s full of history too. There are ghosts – but they’re all good! The painting over the hall fireplace is of Lady Casement. She appears to be watching everything going on around her. My mother was redecorating a bedroom and uncovered Roger Casement’s signature under the wallpaper. She had his signature certified – it’s protected now in a glass display on the wall. Seamus Heaney was a regular at Bel-Air and spent time writing here. We’ve a 200 acre farm and 50 horses.”
It’s still very much a country house so Bel-Air has done well for itself. Not even a modern extension. The same can’t be said for an Eccles manor north of the Black Pig’s Dyke. Ecclesville in Fintona, County Tyrone, was the seat of another branch of the Barony. Two refined neoclassical main elevations were placed at right angles to each other like Castle Grove: a six bay slightly asymmetric entrance front and a five bay symmetric garden front. Breakfronts between dentil corniced setbacks and ground floor windows set in blind segmental arches gave rhythm and subtle character. The interior was equally fine, especially the plasterwork in the interlinked drawing room and music room.
The last owner of Ecclesville was the rather jolly cross-dressing multi-barrelled man-about-town Raymond Saville Connolly de Montmorency Lecky-Browne-Lecky. His chauffeur driven two toned green Austin 16 was often spotted around Fintona and nearby Omagh. Clad in his trademark mauve suits, his penchant for performing convinced him to convert a barn into a theatre. He died in 1961 aged 80, leaving his estate to the nation. Three centuries of heirlooms were auctioned by Ross’s Auctioneers of Belfast raising £23,500. No buyer was found for the house and after a stint as a nursing home, it was demolished in 1978. Traces of Ecclesville still remain. The name lives on in the Ecclesville Equestrian Centre built on the estate. Its entrance piers and sweep of railings are just about intact. A salvaged stone plaque of the Eccles family arms dated 1703 which was placed over the front door of the house, although surely predating it, is on an outbuilding.
At the top of Church Street in Fintona, rising out of the overgrown cemetery is a statue of a female clinging to a cross. On its plinth are the words: “In memory of my beloved husband John Stuart Eccles of Ecclesville County Tyrone who died the 24th of April 1886 aged 38 years | Eldest son of the late Charles Eccles Esq who died the 4th of November 1869 | Also of my two infant boys. This monument is erected by his sorrowing widow. ‘Suffer little children to come onto me and forbid them not; for such is the Kingdom of God.’” The widow is buried beneath the statue: “This tablet has been placed here by Rose and Dosie Eccles in memory of their beloved mother Frances Caroline Eccles who died 12th February 1887.” A stone dog guards her final resting place. Bel-Air and Ecclesville: two houses, an overlapping family history, sashes and Casements, two fates.