Architects Architecture Art Country Houses Design Luxury People Restaurants Town Houses

Collon House Louth +

For You Have Been Our Refuge

“You will enjoy Collon and the arresting parterre garden,” predicts Ireland’s foremost neoclassicist John O’Connell.

Maurice Craig wrote an article in Country Life, 1949, Some Smaller Irish Houses, “Most of the great houses of Ireland have received some descriptive attention, first from the Irish Georgian Society, and more recently from Country Life. At the other end of the social scale the Irish cottage has interested field geographers and anthropologists such as Dr Estyn Evans (Irish Heritage, 1942). But in between there are, in Ireland as in England, a number of those ‘middling’ houses which are the backbone of vernacular architecture. Social cleavages in the great building age were sharper in Ireland than in England, so that the middle class and its monuments were less numerous than in England. But they existed nonetheless, in both town and country, and their houses are not without distinctive qualities which repay study. Neither ‘big houses nor ‘cabins’, they range from farmhouses to gentlemen farmhouses.”

In the same publication 27 years later, John Cornforth worried in an article Tourism and Irish Country Houses, “With planning and preservation arrangements in town and country still in their infancy, there is nothing to stop a purchaser buying a historic demesne for its land, splitting it up, developing it and abandoning the house.” From earls and girls in pearls to manners and manors, cut to 2022 and the current Architectural Editor of Country Life, Jeremy Musson tells us, “I’m a curious house guest, writing about Irish country houses for a British magazine, Country Life. It’s a personal odyssey. The tall walls, owners with a disarming sense of humour … Irish country houses have a special flavour. I rarely get to bed before midnight! Country Life’s publication of Irish houses is an erratic study. Country Life was established in 1897; Powerscourt House in County Wicklow was published two years later. The magazine’s founder Edward Hudson is reported to have said, ‘Lismore Castle in County Waterford I believe is very photographable.’ Mount Stewart in County Down was featured in 1935.”

Jeremy relates, “Irish houses had far larger numbers of servants than English ones and greater hospitality. The complexity of servants’ basements contrasts with the simplicity of the layout of the main rooms above. Lissadell in County Sligo is a classic example of this arrangement. My first Country Life article was Russborough in County Wicklow. I covered Farmleigh in Dublin in 1999 and Killadoon in County Kildare in 2004. I also wrote up Castle Leslie in County Monaghan in 1999. Sir Jack Leslie loved going to the local disco – he said ‘Dancing shakes up the liver!’ I remember a dinner at Drenagh in County Londonderry. Mid course, cattle invaded the lawn so we all ran outside to chase the cows away!” Somewhere needs a haha. “In 2015 I covered Kilboy House in County Tipperary, probably the most ambitious Irish country house project in recent times. Country Life is the recording angel of the Irish country house and it continues to beguile.”

Another architectural historian, Roger White, shared with us this year, “The aristocracy and gentry in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice novel had limitless leisure hours, filling some of them by visiting country houses.” And that brings us rather nicely to sitting in the music room of Collon House, County Louth. We’re guests of owners John Bentley-Dunne and Michael McMahon. “Collon House is actually three houses around a courtyard which I inherited in 1995,” explains John. “The interiors were Victorianised so we wanted to bring them back to their original Georgian appearance. The restoration took 10 years. We reinserted correct glazing bars and shutters for the windows.”

Collon House is not quite a big house and certainly not a cabin. It’s a large middling size house. “I am not sure why Anthony Foster, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, ended up building a house in this village location in 1740. His son John was the last Speaker of the Irish Commons until its dissolution by The Act of Union in 1800. It is an example of an Irish ‘long house’. The Speaker’s descendants recently came from England to visit the house.” John O’Connell says, “‘Speaker’ Foster built Mount Oriel Temple a few kilometres north of Collon. Its pedimented portico was inspired by The Temple of the Winds. The house had a room with a series of grisaille paintings by Peter de Gree which I believe ended up at Luttrellstown Castle outside Dublin.” Mount Oriel Temple is much altered and under the ownership of Cistercian monks.

“It all started with an overspill at Tankardstown House in neighbouring County Meath,” intrigues John. “The owners asked if we could take some staying guests as they were full. The rest is history.” Canopy Room, Chinese Room, Speaker Foster’s Room, French Room, Massereene Room … there’s accommodation for 22 guests at Collon House. Modern conveniences are discreet: those one metre deep walls and oversized landings come in handy for adding en suite bathrooms.

We join our distinguished fellow guests from Richmond, Virginia, for a candlelit and evening sunlit dinner of Irish country house portions and Irish country house hotel standard in the dining room. Starter is seafood cocktail wrapped in smoked salmon in seafood sauce followed by pea and coriander soup. Limoncello with lemon shavings forms the palate cleanser. When in Rome! Smoked salmon, butter mash, baby tomatoes, baby carrots and broccoli are something of the national tricolour on a plate. Lemon continues as a theme with sorbet pudding. Michael serves; John is busy in the kitchen. Coffee and chocolates are enjoyed in the music room across the staircase hall and garden hall lobby. Just in time to look out across the sunken parterre garden. Box edged flowerbeds are filled with asters, delphinium, helenium and phlox. The planting is so complementary to the tulips and hosta surrounding the fountain in the courtyard.

We enjoyed Collon and the arresting parterre garden.

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St Stephen’s Green + Kildare Street Club Dublin

Fulfil Our Vows Day After Day

Dublin’s most exclusive club is the only place to watch sundown over St Stephen’s Green. The Kildare Street Club of course isn’t on Kildare Street or at least hasn’t been since the war. Ireland’s most spirited architect John O’Connell joins us. “My first essay was the green leather bar. And I am responsible for the mirrored jib door on the staircase landing. Nobody interrupted me in my work. The ceiling is painted pewter as invented by Robert Adam.” That’s the bar sorted. We’re off on a tour. “You have to have life in the building. There should never be crewelwork in such an interior. I love festoons! My ladies’ windows!”

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Campanile + Barden Towers Belfast

Twin Peaks

The traditional Italian campanile is a standalone structure, not integrated with the accompanying building, and reserved for its purpose of keeping bells. St Mark’s Campanile in Venice is the most famous: it is the belltower of the adjacent St Mark’s Basilica.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were together responsible for lots of fads that became fashions that became fixtures of national life, from Christmas trees to white wedding dresses. Their mid 19th century house on the Isle of Wight, Osborne House, remodelled (with a helping hand by Prince Albert) and rebuilt by the developer Thomas Cubitt, launched an architectural craze. The residential campanile. Osborne House has two such vertical features. Soon, campaniles were springing up on houses everywhere across the British Isles. “The top floors were sometimes used to house water tanks,” explains heritage architect John O’Connell.

Belfast has a handful of striking examples. In the north of the city, campaniles dramatically rise above the side elevations of a pair of semi-detached villas on Donegall Park Avenue. In the east of the city, twin campaniles are attached to the front elevations of a pair of semi-detached houses on Belmont Road named Barden Towers.

Completed in 1895, Barden Towers are typical red brick bay windowed suburban Belfast houses of the larger kind but the campaniles with their terracotta trimmings give them a novel twist. These belvederes each contain a square ground floor vestibule with a corresponding room on the two storeys above. The upper floor tower rooms are lit on three sides by generously sized sash windows. Daylight streams into one of the bedrooms like Edward Hopper’s painting ‘Sun in an Empty Room’.

Built decades after their Osborne House inspiration and centuries after their Italian forerunners, the campaniles of Belfast are shining examples of an architectural feature adapted in terms of material and function to a different climate, country and culture.

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Mountjoy Square Dublin +

Sureness of Style

“Is there a good house on Mountjoy Square?” Desirée Shortt asks mischievously. She qualifies herself, “It’s a rhetorical question!” She is talking about the condition of the houses, not the architecture. Ireland’s greatest living china restorer lives a safe block away in the genteel North Great George’s Street. Her neighbours include Senator David Norris and Grade I Conservation Architect John O’Connell. “Dublin is a very beautiful city,” Desirée qualifies herself even further. “Edinburgh is the only comparable city.”

It doesn’t help that Mountjoy Square shares its name with a fairly infamous prison. Slowly, though, the four terraces facing the green are shedding their shady past and early signs of gentrification are shining through on a sunny winter’s morning. There’s something more impressive about Georgian Dublin townhouses than their London counterparts. The brick is redder, the fanlights wider, the first floor windows taller, the basement areas deeper. It’s all about scale: bigger really is better. Everything’s looking up.

John Heagney writes in The Georgian Squares of Dublin, 2006, “Developed by the Gardiner Estate, Mountjoy Square was laid out in 1791 and built between 1793 and 1818. It has the distinction of being Georgian Dublin’s only true square since each of its four sides measures 140 metres in length. Mountjoy Square earned this tribute from contemporary commentators Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh: ‘This square, which is now completely finished, is neat, simple and elegant, its situation elevated and healthy … the elevation of the houses, the breadth of the streets, so harmonise together, as to give pleasure to the eye of the spectator, and add to the neatness, simplicity, and regularity everywhere visible, entitling the square to rank high among the finest in Europe.’”

He continues, “But perhaps more than Dublin’s other Georgian squares, Mountjoy Square has suffered the depredations of time: after the 1800 Act of Union, it went into decline and many of its fine buildings became tenement dwellings, while a period of protracted neglect during the 20th century led to extensive loss of houses on the west and south sides of the square. The survival of the north and east sides is due largely to the heroic determination of individuals and families who pledged themselves to its continued existence and have laid the foundations for the future renaissance of Mountjoy Square, while a renewed interest in rescuing and cherishing Georgian Dublin bodes well for the future of this important part of the city’s streetscape.”

A driver’s experience is of a cohesive set piece of urban planning and architecture. A streetwalker’s experience is of the finer grain. Cut granite flags, moulded granite paving plinths, cut stone half arches spanning basement areas, cast iron boot scrapers and lantern standards. And those fanlight doorcases with their leaded umbrella like-spokes, miniature glass lanterns, sidelights, columns and friezes. The typical three bay five storey house on Mountjoy Square has 590 square metres of floorspace. Size matters.

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Pembroke Hall + Baggot Street Dublin

When Angels Come Calling

It’s all change on and off Baggot Street in Ballsbridge, south Dublin. The Unicorn and l’Écrivain restaurants are history. Larry Murphy’s watering hole has closed although Searson’s and The Waterloo continue to serve thirsty customers. Wilton Place, where Baggot Street meets the canal, is being transformed. Wilton Park House and the other office blocks are demolished, waiting to be replaced by architects Henry John Lyons’ on trend glazed office led mixed use scheme which will include LinkedIn’s European headquarters.

Wilton Park House was the home of the Industrial Development Agency. Architects Tyndall Hogan Hurley’s block was, perhaps, an acquired taste, an unforgiving sort of beauty, but it had an impressive fortress-like appearance with its granite walls and horizontal bands of irregular spaced windows interspersed with stainless steel panels. Those windows held significance: the higher the grade of IDA manager, the more windows they could claim for their office. Not every commercial building can boast of status denoting fenestration. Hierarchy continued with the tea trolley: plain biscuits on the first to fifth floors; chocolate coated biscuits for senior management on the top floor. The ground floor staff restaurant serving subsidised meals was a place for everyone to gain their “IDA stone”.

Pembroke Road is a continuation of Baggot Street to the south of the canal. Little has changed along this stretch of grand Georgian terraces and villas. Architectural details only have been updated. Dublin based architect John O’Connell points out, “The patent reveals of the sash windows were painted white in Victorian times to reflect light.” Pembroke Hall on Pembroke Road is a tall two bay three storey over basement mid terrace townhouse. It has that wall to window ratio so pleasing to the eye that Dublin does best. And of course a grand doorcase with fanlight. An internal fanlight extends natural light through the entrance hall and up the staircase.

The house has been sensitively restored and converted to accommodate 12 bedrooms for holiday lets. Contemporary furnishings include steel framed desks designed by Patrick McKenna of Wabi Sabi and headboards designed by Helle Moyna of Nordic Elements. There’s more change to the southeast of Pembroke Hall. The Berkeley Hotel (famous for its late 20th century tapestries) and Jury’s Inn (infamous for its all-nighter Coffee Dock) have been replaced by new luxury apartment blocks called Lansdowne Place.

Over to Pembroke Hall owners Ian and Hilary McCarthy: “Ballsbridge has a wonderful history that goes back to the Viking invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries. A legendary battle was fought here between the Irish and the invading Danes. A Viking grave and burial mound was uncovered not far from where Pembroke Hall is today. Medieval Dublin was a sprawling city served by two major roads. You can still walk along the route today from St Stephen’s Green to Merrion Row and along Pembroke Street, then on across the River Dodder and south to the sea at Blackrock.”

Ballsbridge – or ‘Balls Bridge’ as it was then – was and still is a prosperous settlement. It had a linen and cotton printers, a paper mill and a gunpowder factory. The farmland that surrounded it was owned by the Fitzwilliam family. In 1833 it was inherited by George Herbert, the 11th Earl of Pembroke. It was George Herbert who created the Pembroke Road you see today which was and is part of the larger Pembroke Estate in Dublin.”

Georgian Dublin was one of the most fashionable cities in Europe. Wealthy aristocracy lived in tall elegant terraces of brick houses of which No.76 Pembroke Road is one. George Herbert’s lands were close to the city’s three most beautiful Georgian garden squares: Fitzwilliam Square, Merrion Square and St Stephen’s Green. He built magnificent residences all along Pembroke Road. His name lives on in one of Dublin’s grandest wide boulevards and his name is remembered at Pembroke Hall.”

“We acquired the house in 2017. It had been in use as a guesthouse previously but it was closed for some years after the economic difficulties of 2008. We refurbished the house extensively over six to eight months, keeping faith with its history and historic features. Our online reviews are nine plus and we are delighted and thankful for that.”

“We believe Pembroke Hall is very special. We want to provide guests with a very comfortable experience when they, stay based on three elements: a good night’s sleep in a super comfy king or super king sized bed; excellent WiFi; and a super shower. We decided not to do food because our location is minutes away from fantastic eateries that provide wonderful food all day. We are just a 15 to 20 minute walk from the city centre.”

“Our location is wonderful. The Aviva Stadium is moments away and is the home of Irish rugby and soccer. On 13 November 2021 Ireland won against the All Blacks at the stadium – our third victory against this world winning team! There are an array of local eateries, parks and transport facilities on our doorstep. You can walk to the city centre for shopping, Trinity College, Dublin Castle, government buildings and Dublin’s wonderful art galleries. Not forgetting the Guinness Storehouse too. We hope this gives you a feel and flavour for Pembroke Hall.”

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Glenmore House + Cushendun Harbour Antrim

A Hymn to the Lost Pastoral World of the Anglo Irish

Cushendun Coast County Antrim © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Top Irish architect John O’Connell knows Cushendun well. “Clough Williams-Ellis represents his era correctly,” he affirms, “using a fine palette. His architecture is so reticent. There is an early German flavour to it. He was blessed with a prudent patron at Cushendun.” Clough was a strong believer in contextualism, commenting, “How often one may see new houses that are like swaggering strangers… that have insolently plunked themselves down on the edge of a cosy little gossip party and been properly left out in the cold. They have made no gesture of salutation, no concessions, no effort to make themselves agreeable to the architectural traditions of the place, and in return the old village just will not, cannot, know them.”

Glenmore House Cushendun Facade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belfast based architectural historian James Curl wrote a seminal feature on Cushendun titled “Antrim’s Discreet Holiday Resort” for Country Life in 1976. “The area known as The Glynnes, or Glens, of Antrim comprises the northeasternmost part of Northern Ireland. This article will describe the character and development of Cushendun, a small village on the shore at the eastern end of Glendun, one of The Nine Glens of Antrim. The coastal regions of The Glens are in sight of Kintyre and Islay, and from the earliest times there has been a close relationship with the lands across the Moyle. Yet The Glens are essentially Irish in character. Gaelic was spoken in the valleys until comparatively recently, and the area is rich in its own legends and history. From these glaciated valleys an adventurous people set out to establish rule over much of what is now Argyll, and the first kingdom of Dalriada was established. The hardy, independent nature of the Glensmen ensured prolonged resistance to Elizabeth’s generals in the 16th century, while the territories’ isolated position left language and religion relatively intact.

Glenmore House Cushendun Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Taken as a whole, The Glens contain some of the most beautiful scenery in Ireland. While each has its own champions, Glendun inspires its own partisans, for it has a gentle charm quite unlike its more spectacular sisters. To the west, it is narrow and wooded, where its river tumbles over dark stones seta mong mosses, heathers, and ferns. It widens at its eastern end, and becomes a lush landscape of small fields with hedges that in summer are aglow with wild fuchsia.

Until just over a century ago, Glendun was one of the most inaccessible of The Glens, but this was dramatically changed when the Royal Military Road was constructed in 1833 to 1834. This road brought tourists to the fashionably romantic landscapes, and, ultimately, to enjoy the newly approved bathing in the wide and lovely bay that joins Glendun to the sea. Thus, from the reign of William IV, Cushendun developed as a discreet holiday resort, in a landscape of ravishing beauty. In 1817, R S Dobbs could describe the hamlet of Cushendun as ‘handsome’ and having ‘some very romantic spots in it’, including the curious caves of conglomerate rock that lie south of the village proper, and through which access may be had to the Caves House, formerly the home of the Crommelin family. Although tiny, Cushendun is the nearest port to Great Britain in Ireland, and it was this that prompted the Crommelins in 1830 to commission a design from John Rennie for a harbour known as Port Crommelin. However this scheme never materialised. Today, there is a modest harbour at the mouth of the river, and the natural features give us a clue to the name ‘Cushendun’, for the Irish Cois-abhann-Duine means ‘the end of the brown river’. The stone bridge at the western end of harbour was constructed in 1860 and recently has been inelegantly widened…

The building of the churches, the opening of The Glens, the fashion for sea bathing, and peace helped Cushendun to prosper, and sturdy dwellings replaced the humbler huts of the past. The architecture of Cushendun is mostly of a traditional 19th century vernacular type usual in Irish villages. The main street of Cushendun leading from the bridge to the parish church has its post office and shop, while McBride’s Pub, near the river, provides a convivial focus…

To the west of Main Street is the first group of outstanding character. This is known as The Square, and consists of two storeyed terraces planned symmetrically around a courtyard garden that is entered between massive gate piers. The terraces are linked by arches at the corners. An elliptical slate tablet in the central gable is inscribed with a date and the initials ‘RMcN’ and ‘MMcN’ commemorating Ronald McNeill and his wife Maud who were largely responsible for the appearance of modern Cushendun. Maud was Cornish and ‘loved The Glens’, according to her tombstone under a Celtic cross in the Parish courtyard, and it was largely through her that Clough Williams-Ellis was commissioned to enhance the village, starting with The Square, built in 1912.

After the ‘bathing lodge’ was burned down, Williams-Ellis designed and built Glenmona House in 1923 for the McNeills in a pastiche Regency style. The architect then added Maud Cottages, by the Green, in 1925. These consist of two storey terrace houses, with the upper part slate hung in the manner of Cornish coastal villages. The contribution of the architect and the McNeills to the beauties of Cushendun cannot be overestimated.

Main Street, the church, Glenmona House, and the cottages are all to the north of the river. To the south is a range of hotels. Following the war years, the future of Cushendun caused concern. It was recognised that the village and its surrounding area were of great beauty and importance, and so in 1954 some 62 acres of Cushendun north of the river were acquired by the National Trust through the Ulster Land Fund, and further acres adjoining the beach were purchased in 1965 with the aid of Enterprise Neptune Funds. There is a considerable problem with erosion of the beach, not only through over-use by holidaymakers but through farmers removing sand for agricultural purposes. Boating interests are encouraged by the Trust with improvements to the harbour, while grazing rights on surrounding lands are leased on the conacre system.

Glenmore House Cushendun Side Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Trust, mindful of the desirability of encouraging a traditional way of life, lets cottages to local people rather than to persons requiring holiday homes. There were problems in upgrading the existing houses to comply with modern standards, but generally this has been achieved with little damage to architectural character. The Trust, by means of covenants, ensures that properties are adequately maintained, and more care than is usual in Northern Ireland has been taken over the design of 24 new dwellings for public housing. While covenants appear to work in the Trust’s own lands, proper conservation policies for Cushendun as a whole are necessary. A Conservation Area should include the Caves, the hotels, and the whole of the village, and enhancement of this national treasure should be the goal.”

Cushendun County Antrim © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

So there it was and here it is. Four years after James Curl’s Country Life plea, the village and surrounding lands of Cushendun were designated a Conservation Area. The Caves have found new fame as a Game of Thrones destination. And yet, and yet. Randal McDonnell, Viscount Dunluce, son of the 14th Earl of Antrim, recently captured the underlying issue, “This is an extremely remote location hemmed in by The Glens.” He should know: his family used to own 133,000 hectares of Country Antrim: “Basically the top half.” A melancholic peace has descended upon Cushendun, these days a not so much discreet as forgotten holiday resort. The The National Trust’s Glenmona House is a little frayed round the edges. Cushendun Hotel and its once hospitable neighbours facing the harbour stand forlornly empty, the only visitor a grazing goat sporting a high viz yellow jacket.

Cushendun Hotel County Antrim © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Art Country Houses

Giusti Gardens Verona + Summer

A Maze

“The Giusti Gardens are very simple and rather English!” exclaims architect John O’Connell. “So beautiful, not heroic, just green. They have lots of trees, paths and shade, and were much admired by Mozart and Goethe though not at the same time.” What did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe have to say on Giusti Gardens in his Italian Journey? “… where huge cypresses soar into the air like awls. The yew trees, which are clipped to a point, are probably imitations of this magnificent product of nature… judging from the date when the garden was planted, these cypresses must already have reached such a great age.” Diana and Apollo | a grotto and a belvedere | a precipice and a pavilion | a labyrinth and a tower | lizards and lemons. Amazing.