Notes on a House
It is one of the most romantically situated country houses in Ireland, picturesquely positioned on a peninsula off a peninsula. Buncrana Castle is perched on the edge of its namesake town, looking serenely across Lough Swilly towards the Atlantic Ocean. The serenity of its setting is matched by the serenity of its architecture. “Indeed this is a building of note,” remarks heritage architect John O’Connell. He in turn refers to the words of the late Dr Maurice Craig, who writes about Buncrana Castle in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, 1976. John drew many of the floorplans illustrating this seminal book.
Dr Craig describes an architectural characteristic that the house shares with a few others, “The type of small cubical wing, usually lower than the house, which stands advanced from the main block at each end, and overlaps it by the thickness of one wall which is common to both house and wing, has a long history. It resembles the musical device in which the last note of one phase is the first note of the next. In plan, if not in silhouette, it appears as early as Jigginstown (1637), and by the time of Waringstown, County Down, it is fully established. Buncrana, County Donegal, though sharply contrasted in other ways, is an example from the very early 18th century.” He captions a closeup photograph of its façade: “Doorcase with a tablet commemorating the landing of Wolfe Tone at Lough Swilly in 1798.”
Three years earlier, Hugh Dixon’s An Introduction to Ulster Architecture was published: “By contrast with Waringstown House or Berwick Hall, Buncrana Castle, built by Sir John Vaughan between 1716 and 1718, is a competent and assured piece of architectural design; it may indeed be found rather dull because of this. Each window balances another. Each has its own area of wall to occupy, neither too large nor too small. The introduction of a half-basement raises both the height and the importance of the ground floor. The front door is approached by a gentle flight of narrowing steps, and decorated with a moulded frame topped by a curving open pediment. The three central bays are given a discreet prominence by being advanced slightly from the main block, and the monotony of the blank side walls of the wings is relieved by arched niches.”
Mark Bence-Jones summarises ownership history in his 1988 revised tome A Guide to Irish Country Houses, “A very distinguished early 18th century house, built circa 1716 by George Vaughan, close to the shore of Lough Swilly. Two storeys over basement; seven bay centre block with two storey one bay overlapping wings. Doorway with scroll pediment. Panelled interior. Axial approach by a six arched bridge over the river, near which stands an old towerhouse of the O’Dohertys, Lords of Inishowen; and through a curving forecourt. Originally the house was surrounded by elaborate gardens and terraces. By circa 1840, Buncrana belonged to a Mrs Todd; it later became the seat of Alexander Airth Richardson, son of Jonathan Richardson, MP, of Lambeg, and his wife Margaret Airth. It is now falling into decay.”
In 2002, Howley Harrington Architects won an RIAI award for the repair of Buncrana Castle’s complex roof. The practice’s scholarship was praised by the Institute. Over to James Howley, “The castle has been described by several historians as having been built in 1718, probably because of the date stone that survives above the entrance door. During our survey we discovered that the building was much older, probably dating from the early 17th century, with a significant programme of alteration and extension in 1718. The triple stack roof from 1718 is not only one of the oldest surviving roofs in the country, but many of its large section timber members were reused floor beams, complete with joist sockets, salvaged from an earlier house. Quite remarkably the original roof covering, consisting of pegged stone slates, was intact, though in a very poor state of repair. The stone slates were quarried locally and the individual slates were graded from eaves to ridge, and in addition to the pegs were bedded in lime and sand. Another remarkable feature of this roof is that apart from the stone capped front ridge, all other ridges to the main roof and flankers were made of lime and sand. Although this roof had been leaking for over 40 years, during which time inappropriate and ineffective cement and bitumen repairs had been carried out, it had survived for an astonishing 280 years.”
The architect continues, “It became immediately apparent that the roof structure was of great cultural significance and had to be retained and repaired, and that the very beautiful grey-green stone slates should be salvaged and reused at least on the principal east facing roof and flankers. A programme of extensive repair and replacement was carried out to the roof structure, where approximately 10 percent of the rafters and 70 percent of the main structural members including purlins ridge and valley beams were saved. The rainwater disposal system was replaced in cast iron and many new sliding sash widows were installed. The building, described as ‘derelict’ in the 1970s and 80s, is now dry, and ventilated, its future secured. The varied colours and textures of the stone faced roofs are extremely beautiful and the only example of stone slate roofing we know of on a major building in Ireland.”
A flick through the entries in A Guide to Irish Country Houses shows two more examples of houses with the “small cubical wing” identified by Dr Maurice Craig. Castle Cor, County Cork, and Cahir-Guillamore, County Limerick, both have single bay projecting attachments. Like Buncrana Castle, or at least like its rebuilding as so recently identified by James Howley, these two houses are early 18th century. But Buncrana Castle, in style and location, really is unique. Dr Craig clearly enjoyed musical metaphors and to borrow his tone, the building’s designer realised to fruition that harmony is the result of good counterpoint.