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Mount Falcon Sligo + Phantom the Falcon

The First September

The architect James Franklin Fuller sounds like he’d have been good craic at a dinner party. When not bashing out High Victorian melodramatic novels, bragging of his descent from Charlemagne or boasting of his wife’s connections to Napoleon, he was busy embellishing Ireland with a string of rather fetching future tourist attractions. Ashford Castle, Farmleigh, Kylemore Abbey and Park Hotel Kenmare are probably the best known ones.

He also worked on two country houses in the west of Ireland: the design of Mount Falcon and the redesign of Annaghmore. Quite the eclectic, Mr F ensured they’re not wildly similar. The former is asymmetrical and vaguely castellated. The latter is symmetrical and strongly neoclassical. They both have plate glass sash windows and grey stone walls. Fast forward a generation or two: Mount Falcon has had an extension added; Annaghmore, a wing demolished.

Mount Falcon is freeform baronial, an Irish take on a Scottish tradition. All 32 of the bedrooms are available to paying guests (Mount Falcon is now a hotel). Mark Bence-Jones in A Guide to Irish Country Houses calls Annaghmore “late Georgian”.  Esteemed architectural historian Dr Roderick O’Donnell retorts, “It’s lazy to just call Annaghmore ‘late Georgian’. It’s not. The remodelled front elevation is Victorian Greek Revival – the Greek order used is a giveaway.” The house was once joyously named Nymphsfield. Only one of the many bedrooms is available to paying guests (Annaghmore is still a private house).

“A few months after opening my offices I discarded the regulation copying-press and the regulation letter-book,” James Franklin Fuller confessed in his autobiography. “The ‘correct’ thing to do with letters received, was to preserve, docket and to pigeon-hole them… whereas nine out of 10 of them went into my wastepaper basket immediately after receipt . . . I kept no ledgers or books of any sort: I could not see the least necessity for them.” Clearly, admin was beneath him. It’s a wonder that any buildings can be attributed to him, never mind such a variety.

Mount Falcon retains its original internal fittings: cornicing, fireplaces, panelling and even servants’ bells. There are spacious reception rooms but it’s more fun to eat in the intimacy of the square tower: table for two only. Mount Falcon has, aptly, a resident falcon. Phantom is sitting balanced on the back of a chair in the dining room. “Falcons follow a matriarchal pecking order,” explains her falconer. “They respond more respectfully to female humans than males.”

Females play defining roles in the history of Mount Falcon. The house was commissioned by Ultred Knox in honour of his wife Nina Knox-Gore of nearby Belleek Manor. It was completed in 1876. Major and Constance Aldridge bought the estate in 1932 and opened the house as a hunting lodge. Connie was one of the founders of the Blue Book, Ireland’s leading guide to hotels of distinction. In 2002, Mount Falcon was taken over by the current owners, who include the local Maloney family.

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Architecture Art Country Houses

Ambrose Congreve + Mount Congreve Waterford

What a Fad

Mount Congreve Entrance © Stuart Blakley

First it was Farmleigh, then Lissadell, next it was Mount Congreve. Historic Irish houses lived in by the original families with intact interiors and gardens that could have been saved in their entirety for the nation. The Guinnesses’ former home Farmleigh was eventually purchased by the Government after its contents had been sold. Lissadell, once the home of Countess Markievicz who helped establish the Republic of Ireland, was sold on the open market and its contents auctioned despite the Gore-Booth family offering it to the State. At Mount Congreve, it is the gardens that have been saved. Its last owner, Ambrose Christian Congreve, struck a deal with the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey that in return for tax exemption during his lifetime, the gardens would be left to the people of Ireland. The house is still there, stripped naked of its phenomenal collection of furniture and art, still surrounded by one of the finest gardens in the country, if not the world.Mount Congreve Facade © Stuart BlakleyIt took just two days in July 2012 for Mealy’s and Christie’s to auction off the entire contents. At the time, George Mealy explained, “There are lacquered screens and vases from Imperial China, rare books, Georgian silver, vintage wines, chandeliers and gilt mirrors and enough antique furniture to fill a palace. Everything is on offer. It’s a complete clearance of the entire estate. He did his art shopping in London. He got most of it through London because he had spotters for items that he might be interested in. Mr Congreve loved collecting. He loved nice things and he had unbelievable taste.” The result was a hard core property porn auction catalogue. Page after page of exotic beauty: the crimson library, the lemon bedroom, the Wedgwood blue sitting room, the large drawing spanning the full depth of the house: Chinoserie takes on Versailles.

 

 

Mount Congreve Garden Front © Stuart Blakley

Jim Hayes, former IDA director, records a visit to Mount Congreve in his autobiography The Road from Harbour Hill, “We were received on arrival by Geraldine Critchley, the social secretary and long-term assistant of Ambrose Congreve. The ornate hall was decked with a number of gloves, walking canes and a variety of riding accessories. We were escorted into a large drawing room, the walls of which were covered in 18th century, hand-painted, Chinese wallpaper. Three large Alsatian dogs lay asleep in the corner of the room. A liveried servant then appeared with a silver tray and teapot and antique bone china cups and saucers. This young man, of Indian origin, was one of the last few remaining liveried servants of Ireland’s great houses.” Sheila Bagliani, doyenne of Gaultier Lodge in County Waterford, recalls, “Gus, Ambrose’s Alsatian, had full run of the house.”

Mount Congreve Driveway © Stuart Blakley

Ambrose was in London rather aptly for the Chelsea Flower Show when he died in 2011, aged 104. He had no children so eight generations of his family’s enhancement of Waterford came to a close. Geraldine Critchley, his partner, survives him. The son of Major John Congreve and Lady Irène Congreve, daughter of the 8th Earl of Bessborough, Ambrose inherited Mount Congreve in 1968 and restored and redecorated and replanted it to within an inch of its being. The good life took off, on a whole new level. Ambrose divided his time between Mount Congreve and his London townhouse near Belgrave Square. He employed a succession of fine chefs de cuisine including Albert Roux who went on to co-found Le Gavroche restaurant.

Mount Congreve Garden © Stuart Blakley

Now for some horticultural stats. 46 hectare estate. 28 hectares of woodland. 1.6 hectares of walled gardens. 16 miles of paths. 3,000 different trees and shrubs. 3,000 rhododendrons. 1,500 plants. 600 camellias. 600 conifers. 300 acer cultivars. 300 magnolias. 250 climbers. The stuff of rural legend, all piled high on the south bank of the River Suir. The manicured gardens end abruptly next to open fields, like a beautiful face half made-up. Awards include classification as a Great Garden of the World by the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts and a Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. Sheila Bagliani remembers, “Piped music in the grounds kept the 25 gardeners entertained while working. Ambrose also employed the Queen Mother’s former chauffeur.” Lot Number 492 at the auction was his 1969 shell grey Rolls Royce Phantom V1, price guide €12,000 to €18,000. It sold for €55,000. At his centenary lunch celebration, Ambrose declared, “To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy forever, make a garden.” His garden lives on in perpetuity, making the public happy.

Mount Congreve Garden Dutch Steps © Stuart Blakley