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Markree Castle + Knockmuldowney Restaurant Sligo

For Richer for Poorer

Markree Castle River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The rich man in his castle; the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly; and ordered their estate…” penned Mrs Alexander wistfully gazing beyond the river running by, through the tall trees in the green wood to the purple headed Benbulben, Europe’s only table top mountain. Little did the Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh’s wife know her hymn, first published in 1848 to raise dosh for deaf mutes (stolen children), would be an early victim of political correctness. Her Anglo Irish outlook on social immobility grated with later sensibilities so the third verse about a destined housing hierarchy disappeared. Being about Markree Castle the poor man really didn’t have too bad a time at the Francis Goodwin designed Gothic gatelodge, a piece of castle itself. Fortunately Once in Royal David’s City remains intact. The name of the castle has evolved over the last five centuries from Mercury, Marcia, Markea, Markrea and finally to Markree.

Markree Castle Gateway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Cecil Frances Alexander wasn’t the only guest to wax lyrical. William Butler Yeats recalled, “We have always looked on the Coopers and Markree Castle as greater than the Royal Family and Buckingham Palace.” He wrote in Running to Paradise, “Poor men have grown to be rich men; and rich men grown to be poor again.” Nowt so queer as fate. Once owned by the McDonagh clan, in 1666 the land was presented to Edward Cooper, a Cromwellian soldier from Norfolk, as a reward for his role in the Siege of Limerick. Defeated Irish chieftain Conor O’Brien’s widow Red Mary married Coronet Cooper and her two sons took the surname of their stepfather. Later, the Coopers opposed the Act of Union so no dukedom, earldom or even baronetcy was bestowed upon them. A fiefdom of 36,000 acres, generating an annual income of £10,000 by 1758, must have acted as some comfort. Any doubts of lineage and loyalty are dispelled by the stained glass window of the staircase hall. Twenty generations of Coopers are iconised between Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The enlargement and embellishment of the house finally ended five years shy of the 20th century, commemorated in the date stone over the dining room French doors. In 1902 Bryan Cooper sold 30,000 acres under the Land Acts, at the same closing the basement. A seven year Indian summer was over. Benign decline in line with the times had begun.

Markree Castle Gatehouse © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The recent story of Markree is told in its mention in three books. Brian de Breffny and Rosemary ffolliott ominously note in 1975 in The Houses of Ireland that “Lieutenant Colonel Edward F P Cooper is the present owner and has struggled bravely to arrest the dry rot in parts of the building, though, in order to keep the roof on at all, he and his family have had to withdraw to one wing of the vast place, which was intended to be manned by a host of servants.” Thirteen years later an unhappy ending looked inevitable. The crumbling staircase hall made a poignantly picturesque back cover to the 29th Knight of Glin’s Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland. Tome to tomb. By 1997, Luc Quisenaerts gushes in Hotel Gems of Great Britain and Ireland that the resurrected Markree is like “a wonderful journey through time”. Give or take the odd outbreak of civil war or dry rot, presumably. Pray how the turnaround in fortunes? A knight, this time in shining armour or at least with iron will, had arisen in the form of Charles Cooper.

Markree Castle Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree was occupied by the Free State troops during the Civil War causing damage,” Charles reveals. “Bryan Cooper’s eldest son Francis retired in 1930 and by 1950 the family had retreated to the east wing leaving the rest of the castle empty. The majority of the remaining contents were sold off. In 1988 my older brother put Markree on the market. I’ve worked in the hotel industry at home and abroad since I was 16. My wife Mary and I decided to buy Markree with the help of large bank loans and investments from family and friends. We converted it into a country house hotel. Most of the interior needed to be restored. The roof was completely refurbished due to extensive dry rot. My daughter Patricia now manages the hotel.” The top lit billiard room suspended over the porte cochère where nothing stirs remains untouched, resembling Féau & Cie’s Parisian workshop on Rue Poncelet, fit for St Simeon Stylites (“I want to be alone.”) The family live in converted and extended castellated estate buildings. Somewhere between the castle and the gate.

Markree Castle Balustrade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Phew. Still no modern wing repro’d up to the nines. Markree remains 100 percent castle. For Pringle clad budding Rory McIlroys there are six golf courses in driving range, so to speak, for afternoon tee. Thankfully, the castle has stuck to what it does best, afternoon tea. Sleek and new golf courses: once the delight of the Irish economy; now the bane of the Irish demesne. The early 17th century siege wall of a fortress built by the McDonaghs was uncovered in the basement during restoration work. But the sash windows of the basement hold more of a clue to the current building’s true origins. Hard as it is to believe, Markree is or rather was a five bay 18th century house with a three bay breakfront façade and one bay on either side of a garden front bow. So far, so Georgian. That’s till Francis Johnston came on the scene. Joshua Cooper commissioned the architect of Charleville Forest and Killeen Castle to engulf and transform the house into a castle of the early medieval revival symmetrical kind. Not content, in 1866 his son Edward Cooper employed the Edinburgh architect James Maitland Wardrop to continue the transformation, dropping a consonant from gothick to gothic in the process. Wardrop’s output includes the Jacobaronial Kinnordy Castle and Lochinch Castle, part Balmoral part Glamis (drop the second vowel to pronounce correctly).

Markree Castle Contemporary Sculptures © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The result? An encyclopaedic use of castellation, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Archivolts; bartizans; batement windows (no that’s not a typo); batters; colonettes; conical roofs; crenellations; flying buttresses and octahedral roofs (witch’s hat type, keep up); foiled quarters; battlemented servants’ quarters; machiolation; parapets; skew tables (no not sure either); six minarets crowning the billiard room, demarking a mecca of pleasure; strapwork; tracery; transoms and mullions; vaults and voussoirs. An encyclopaedic mind is required to imbue these words with meaning. Back to the late and last Knight of Glin who, ever wearing his erudition lightly, inn quotable resonant lucidity observed in his latter years, “Markree Castle, an 18th century house transformed into a castle, leaves in no doubt the competence, richness and variety of Irish country house architecture as a whole.”

Markree Castle Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Driveway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel Exterior © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle from River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Roofscape © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Side © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle @ Lavender's Blue

Markree Castle Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Bow Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Cats © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle from Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Ground Floor Plan © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Entrance Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Stairs © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It may have taken a medley of architects, but oh boy, is the approach to the inner sanctums of the castle processional. Little wonder W B Yeats considered Markree regal. A sumptuous sequence of artistic compositions begins with the grand sweep of the staircase, tipping the ground at basement level before rising in steep ascent to the piano nobile. The double height staircase hall leads to a small hallway on one level. To one side, a cast iron radiator has been recast as a sarcophagus. This accordion-like alternating suppression and expansion of space heightens (yes pun) the sense of ancestral occasion, frozen music, a monument of its own magnificence. Tahdah! Into the double height staircase hall. Things simply can’t get any more exciting, can they? Oh yes – the triple height galleried hall. Francis Johnston at his hammerbeam roofed best. Each generation made their mark on Markree and, unabashed by eclecticism, untroubled by budget, unhindered by neighbours, unperturbed by vacillation, the twinned fruity Corinthian columns and compartmentalised ceiling of the adjoining cushioned sitting room render it neoclassical. Great rooms, beautiful lofty things, where travelled men, women and little childer find content or joy in excited reverie.

Markree Castle Gallery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The dining room is a suite of three spaces good enough for Grace of Monaco to wander through. Calm hues of hammered gold, fleshy pink, off white and pale duck egg blue do little to dampen the Continental exuberance of the gold enamelled and mirrored interior installed by Edward Cooper in the 1830s. The result? An encyclopaedic use of applied decoration, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Acanthus leaves; beading; borders; bows; cornicing; coronets; crowns; egg and dart; festoons; flowers; friezes; fruit; heraldry; masks; mouldings; panels; pilasters; plaques; well fed putti – angels in the architecture; ribbons; rosettes; scrolls; shields; swags; tails; wreaths and reeds. Time for dinner amidst the surrounds of this visual feast. Courgette, mushroom and garlic amuse bouche. Whiskey bread. Ardsalagh goats’ cheese mousse with beetroot textures and lemon basil pesto. Buttermilk onion rings, always onion rings. Cockles from the sands of Lissadell, buttered samphire, cauliflower purée and sauce vierge. Pistachio (flavour of the moment) and olive oil cake, roasted strawberries and rhubarb sorbet. It’s a riot of colour and taste, Jackson Pollock in an Irish country garden.

Markree Castle Sitting Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Double doors sliding into the thickness of the dividing walls in the dining room are panelled like geometric jigsaws. Circles and squares, quadrant pieces and segmental cutouts. Jib doors allow the dado rail to continue uninterrupted. The French doors open onto an external staircase leading down to two acres of formal gardens rich in memory glorified, silent in the breathless starlit air. The staircase was the last addition to Markree and it sure did go out with a bang. It firmly belongs to the Belfast Castle outdoor staircase school of “more is more”. A piece of architecture itself, a central bay containing an unglazed Tudorbethan window is looped in the loops as they turn and turn in wildering whirls. Dartboard windows flank each side of the staircase at basement level.

Markree Castle Sitting Room Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In Ephemera W B Yeats ponders, “‘Ah do not mourn,’ he said; ‘That we are tired, for other loves await us; hate on and love through unrepining hours. Before us lies eternity; our souls are love, and a continual farewell.’” Markree, now old and grey, exudes an air of permanence in an ephemeral age. Centuries of building, from castle to house to castle to hotel, have merged into authenticity, melded by the patina of age: one form hewn from rock, one colour, one character, one craft, oneness. (1) The staircase hall remains just that. (2) Sinéad O’Connor (Sinéad O’Connor is the new Sinéad O’Connor) can still be taken to church in the traditional sanctity of the velvet curtained chapel. (3) The kitchen has been promoted to adjoin the new dining room. (4) The dining room rebranded the Knockmuldowney Restaurant was the drawing room. (5) The library stocks fewer books as the sitting room. (6) The same ghosts peer over the galleried hall to the family portraits below. (7) Drinks continue to be served in the sitting room now it’s a bar. And don’t forget the porte cochère, still there, it’s found a humbler use as a smoking room. These days it’s more upper case Regal. At the extremity of the garden front, just before the lowest wing tapers into the garden wall, a gothic arched outbuilding is now the stately home of two cats.

All 32 bedrooms are decorated in vibrant shades and furnished with dark Victorian pieces – such antique joy. The six largest are individually named. On the second floor, The Mrs Alexander Room is 370 square feet, the size of a one bedroom flat in London. It would give Temple House’s Half Acre Bedroom a run for its money. Also on the second floor, The Charles Kingsley Room has two great windows open to the south. The second floor W B Yeats Room is a hexagonal shape, pushing into the garden front bow window. Further along the garden front second floor corridor is The Bryan Cooper Room. On the first floor, The Coronet Cooper Room over the bar has a rectangular bay window and is accessed via its own serpentine stairs sliced through the thickness of the internal wall. The Johnny Cash Room (the singer stayed here in the 1990s) over the dining room is semicircular shaped. It too has its own stairs sliced through the wall.

Markree Castle Dinner © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Handmade Soap Company caters for all creature comforts great and small in the en suite bathrooms. Grapefruit and Irish Moss soap; Lavender and Rosemary bath and shower gel; Basil and Sweet Orange shampoo. A storm darkened rabbit warren: a life sized snakes and ladders game of corridors, galleries, landings, lobbies, passageways, staircases, stairwells, vestibules and more lobbies connecting the rooms is lit by a starry bright patchwork of archways, clerestories, rooflights, roof lanterns, casements and sashes. On a smaller scale, beyond the gate and pavement grey in Ballaghaderreen a castle designed by John McCurdy, architect of the Shelbourne Hotel, is for sale. Edmondstown Castle: offers around €800,000. A seven bedroom High Victorian pile on 29 acres for the price of a one bedroom flat in London.

Markree Castle Shutter © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

An illuminated address presented by the tenants of Markree to Charles Cooper’s great uncle when he attained his majority hangs in the bar. It harks back to a more hat tugging, reverential era, reflecting a social order recognisable to Mrs Alexander: “Address and presentation to Edward Francis P Cooper Esq, Markree Castle, 1933. We the undersigned employees on your estate beg your acceptance of our best congratulations on the attainment of your majority and we wish you long and happy enjoyment of the position you now occupy as owner of the Markree property. We are all aware of the interest you take in Markree, and as most of us experienced very great kindness at the hand of your late father Major B R Cooper, than whom no better employer could be. We have every confidence in thinking that you will be equally good and feel that it will be a similar pleasure to serve you. We take this opportunity of expressing our deep appreciation of the many acts of kindness that we have already received from yourself and every member of your family. In commemoration of this occasion and a slight token of our feelings, we trust you will accept this small gift that we now offer with our best wishes for your welfare in the future, at the same time hoping you will be long spared to spend many happy days at Markree.” In September 2014, Markree Castle was advertised for sale in Country Life for sale for €3,125,000.

Markree Castle Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Categories
Country Houses

The Hidden Ireland + Hilton Park Monaghan

Powers Hilton

1 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

“The air breathed in is soporific; the distances hold other-worldly gleam.”

Elsewhere erroneously attributed to the better known Irish architect Francis Johnston, the core of the current building was most likely designed by James Jones of Dundalk. The rebuilding followed a fire of 1803 which destroyed much of an earlier house. A letter from Jones to Colonel Madden dated 24 July 1838 refers to various works to be undertaken at Hilton Park. The stables and dovecote, the latter a romantic folly, are probably by Jones. He was also the likely designer of the ‘ride’ which adjoins the rear of the house.

2 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

The ride is a distinctive cast iron colonnade erected at the rear of the house to allow the family to observe horses being broken-in away from the inclement County Monaghan weather. It’s now a handy car port.

3 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

In 1874 County Cavan born William Hague (no, not him) was paid 100 guineas by the residing Madden to redesign the house. It was a surprising commission from an Orangeman to a Catholic ecclesiastical architect. One of his many churches is St Aidan’s in nearby Butlersbridge. Drawings by Hague line the walls of the vaulted breakfast room. “He provided my ancestor with a ‘pick and mix’,” says current owner Johnny Madden, “including ceiling designs for the main rooms.”

4 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

While the campanile, bay window and dome weren’t executed, the Ionic porte cochère, parapet decorations and lower storey rustication were completed. Triangular pediments (without aedicules) float over the piano nobile fenestration. The most dramatic change was the excavation of the basement to form a three storey house. Montalto and Tullylagan Manor are two Northern Irish houses which have been similarly treated, most likely for aesthetic purposes. Johnny Madden believes many of the alterations at Hilton Park were for security reasons:

5 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

“You can’t ram the reception rooms when they’re on the first floor. The porte cochère also acts as a barrier. The central rooms on the front elevation all have metal shutters. And the front door is lined with metal. Hague went on to design the west wing of Crom Castle.” Life is more relaxed these days. Below a sliding sash, handily placed steps provide a quick exit to the gardens.

“If you begin in Ireland, Ireland remains the norm.”

Hague was clearly versatile. Crom is neo Elizabethan. Hilton Park is Italianate. Most of his churches were French gothic. “The house isn’t particularly Irish looking,” observes Johnny.

6 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

Hilton Park is now a large three storey stone block commanding views over 240 hectares of land. The entrance front is divided into four sections: a five bay breakfront framing the three bay porte cochère; three bays on either side of the breakfront; and a single bay wing to the right. “The house isn’t as large as it first seems,” says Johnny’s wife Lucy. “It’s long and narrow.” This is apparent on the side approach from the driveway which reveals the building is just three bays deep in some parts. Hilton Park appears much bigger when looking at the five bay garden front which is elongated by an ancillary wing.

7 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

The entrance door opens into a small gothick hall decorated with polychromatic encaustic floor tiles, coral walls and ribbed vaults. Most of the ground floor rooms have vaulted ceilings, a reminder they were once in the basement. The estate office and morning room are accessed off the hall. A pair of double doors leads into the double height staircase hall which is panelled on the ground floor. The gothick theme continues in the first floor barrel vaulted dining room on the garden front. An enfilade of Italianate reception rooms is positioned across the entrance front.

8 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

Stained glass windows add drama to the staircase hall; plate glass windows add light to the reception rooms. The upper section of the staircase is lit by a tall arched Georgian window. Two blind windows in the corner guest bedroom provide balance to the entrance front. All the guest bedrooms are grouped around an upper landing and corridor to the rear of the house. the corridor ceiling slopes under the slant of the pitched roof. The section of the house closest to the driveway is used as the family wing.

9 Hilton Park Monaghan copyright lvbmag.com

“Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colours the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it.”

Bold quotes by Elizabeth Bowen