“The sun always shines on the righteous!” claims hotelier Astrid Bray and sure enough the clouds fade to reveal an unblemished cobalt blue sky over the Capital City of Northwest Ulster. For once it’s not “foundering” as the locals would say. Depending on your persuasion, the name of this place is a four syllable binational portmanteau (Londonderry), a three syllable aristocratic surname (Londond’ry) or a rationalist nationalist two syllables (Derry). The city is one of two in Northern Ireland to share its name with its host county; Armagh does as well (Antrim doesn’t count as it is a mere town and county).
Sisters Margaret and Laura Bowe are joint châtelaines of Marlfield. Laura is Chairperson of Ireland’s Blue Book. “Now entering its 47th year,” she explains, “our collection of properties and restaurants continue to offer luxurious, memorable and unique experiences across the length and breadth of the island of Ireland… We are very proud of our chefs and patron chefs, with many of our restaurants boasting one and two Michelin stars.”
Guests at Bishop’s Gate Hotel are greeted by a framed picture of a quote by the sage Madame Lily Bollinger, clearly not the abstemious sort: “I drink when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.” Equally educational are a series of framed architects’ drawings illustrating the genesis of the architecture of the hotel and other significant buildings in Derry.
Like all cultural tourists to the city, we ask our waitress for directions to the Derry Girls mural. “Not a bother!” she enthuses. “Just like a lollypop lady I’ll direct you!” Her shortcut is through the rear of the hotel. “This room used to be a garden and that’s a covered up well in the corner. The house where the hotel is now was used to hold prisoners during the Siege of Derry. They were able to travel underground from here to a well on Shipquay Street and from there across to boats on the River Foyle to escape.”
Deane Swift generously described Francis (they were friends) as “the greatest painter and architect of his time in these Kingdoms”. His designs tend to group the windows together towards the centre of the façade, leaving a mass of masonry on the corners. This occurs on the façade of Coopershill and at the country house he designed in County Kilkenny, Woodstock. It lends a certain monumentality to the architecture. Coopershill is designed to be seen from all angles: it’s a standalone cubic block devoid of wings, every elevation symmetrical, the house with no back.
There are another two blind windows on the narrower west, or side, elevation. Unlike the entrance, or north, front, they don’t have wooden frames and glazing so are less convincing. “We repainted them to retain the symmetry of the architecture,” he records. But it is the similarity between the two principal elevations, the north (entrance) and south (river facing) which is most striking. They’re virtually identical. It’s a game of spot the difference: the end bays of the south elevation are closer to the corners giving more regular spacing to the window sequence. This even distribution lendsit a more conventional Palladian appearance; the grouping of bays on the north front make it look a little idiosyncratic, somehow more Irish.
The doorcase of the north elevation is replicated on the south except for glazing replacing the door itself. Under this central window, the wall looks unfinished. Could steps have once been there? Or was this elevation originally intended to be the entrance front? “The house took so long to complete,” Simon reckons, “that changes were made during the course of construction. It’s strange how the landing cuts across the Venetian window on the south front. A flying staircase would solve that design flaw!” Indeed a flying staircase like that at Woodbrook, County Wexford, wouldn’t interrupt the landing window. It’s a quirk and a charming one at that. The slope of the land from north to south would reveal the full extent of the basement save for the rubble wall. Below the wall is a kitchen garden which is put to good use for the Monsieur Michelin worthy top notch top nosh dinner:
Candlelit dinner is served in the dining room which looks out towards Kesh Mountain. Owner and Chef Christina O’Hara reminds us that “all the vegetables are from the kitchen garden” and “everything is cooked on the Aga”. At some stage an Irish rhubarb appears with a hint of curry. Nasturtiums add a dash of colour to the pale monkfish. Silverware, glassware, Wedgwood and Mrs Delaney coasters and placemats perfect the table arrangement.
Before dinner, Simon leads a tour of the top and bottom floors. “We’re slowly recolonising the whole house.” His parents spent £100,000 replacing the roof which is cleverly designed to capture rainwater between the two valleys and funnel it down to ground level. The second floor contains family as well as guest accommodation. The first floor – the Venetian Room, the Pink Room, the Blue Room and so on – is all given over to guest accommodation. Simon knows his stuff: he’s President of Ireland’s Blue Book which promotes the country’s finest historic hotels, manor houses and restaurants. Vintage travel luggage labelled “ABC” is piled high in a hallway. “Arthur Brooke Cooper”.
“Look at the architectural detail,” he observes, pointing to the swirl marking the juncture of the doorcases and skirting boards in the staircase hall. A pair of niches (a Francis Bindon motif) add more finesse. The basement is more or less still used for its original purpose. Although perhaps the servants wouldn’t have had a billiard room… A state of the art washing machine stands next to its cast iron Victorian forerunner. The wine cellar has historic earthenware pots from Hargadon Bros on O’Connell Street, Sligo. That pub is still going strong.
“Perhaps Bindon’s very last mansion is Coopershill, County Sligo, although like most of these houses, no documentary evidence exists for it. Tower-like and stark, of similar proportions to Raford, it is made up of two equivalent fronts composed with a central rusticated Venetian window and door, and a third floor three-light window. The fenestration is reminiscent of Castle’s demolished Smyth mansion in Kildare Place, Dublin. Coopershill is sited particularly well and stands high above a river reminding one of the feudal strength of the 17th century towerhouse. As at Raford, the roof is overlapping and 19th century.
The history of the building of Coopershill is an interesting and typically Irish phenomenon for the house was finished in 1774 though started in about 1755 for Arthur Brooke Cooper ‘before engaging in the undertaking, had provided for the cost a tub of gold guineas, but the last guinea was paid away before the building showed above the surface of the ground’. Cooper had to sell property, and it took eight years to quarry the stone. This 20 years of planning and building explains the extraordinary retardé quality of the house considering its recorded date.”
The Knight isn’t gushing in his summation of Francis’ architectural talent: “With the major exceptions of the Curraghmore court and Castle Morres, the Bessborough quadrants and Newhall, his ventures into the architectural field are not particularly distinguished. As he was a gentleman amateur, moving in the best circles in Dublin, he obtained commissions from his friends and relations. He made the most of his connection with the professional Richard Castle and was quite happy to borrow many ideas from him. His houses are mostly in the south and west of Ireland, an area in which Castle had no connections, so theirs was probably a dovetailed and friendly relationship.”
His critical tone continues, “On looking at the photographs of his buildings… one cannot help noticing the solid, four square somewhat gloomy quality of many of them. They are often unsophisticated, naïve and clumsily detailed but they nevertheless amount to a not unrespectable corpus, worthy to be recorded and brought in from the misty damps that surround so much of the history of Irish Palladianism.” He considers there’s one exception: “If it is his, the forecourt at Curraghmore is certainly his masterpiece.”
Coopershill survives amazingly intact. “It was a secondary house for most of the 19th century,” explains Simon. “Annaghmore was the principal O’Hara seat.” So while Annaghmore was much altered, Coopershill remained untouched by Victorian aesthetic enthusiasm. To cut and paste William Butler Yeats’ poetry: Coopershill is an ancestral house surrounded by planted hills and flowering lawns, levelled lawns and gravelled ways; escutcheoned doors opening into great chambers and long galleries. Perfection.