The Most Beautiful Dress
Wall Street | Behind Mansion Walls | The Writing on the Wall
Is Ashford the Los Angeles of Ireland? No. But it does have its very own Bel-Air. Mansion, not zip code. Originally called Cronroe, Bel-Air in County Wicklow not surprisingly got its name from an early 20th century American owner, clearly feeling homesick. The original name lives on in nearby Cronroe Lane. Right from the get-go, it’s had a back yard for dilettantish partying. In the 18th century, fairs were held on the real estate. Tents erected, punch and whiskey sold, and a good time had by all. A forerunner of Glastonbury or Electric Picnic. These days, the party is more likely to be indoors for sure.
Missing from Burke’s Guide, here’s the architectural summation. The current house harks back to 1890. Period. Typical of the twilight moments of the 19th century, extreme Victoriana is clearly on the wane allowing the early plainer trappings of Edwardiana to emerge. Red brick has given way to grey render. Detailing is concentrated on the entrance: a gabled campanile rising past the hipped roofs forms a pyramidal silhouette. The timber panelled double front door below a large plain fanlight is framed by floral capped columns. Segmental arched two pane sash windows are either single, in couples or threesomes. Some are set in canted or boxy days. Stepping inside, the timber staircase takes off with great gusto. Not quite Lissan House; nevertheless a flight of fancy.
It all really got going in 1716 when Sir John Eccles, the Collector of the Port of Dublin, rocked up. He was descended from the Scottish Barony of Eccles. Settling down, his son Hugh built the original house in 1750. An Eccles generation or two later, Cronroe was sold to Julius Casement in 1862. After it was burned down in the 1880s, Julius built the present house. His rather better known relative was his cousin Sir Roger Casement. Roger spent many summer vacations at Cronroe. Outbuildings and stables with light gothick touches appear to predate the house.
In 1934 its American owner Nicholas Burns took over. Despite selling the house to the Murphy family just three years later, the name stuck. Tim and Bridie Murphy converted Bel-Air to a hotel and riding school with the help of their three daughters Ita, Ena and Fildelma. In 1980 Fidelma and her husband Bill Freeman took over. A third generation of siblings William, Aileen, Margaret and Noni now run the show. For our hosts it’s a full house party; no carriages required for guests. This house breathes us. Disco in the drawing room. Speakeasy in the library. Encapsulation of feeling in the bedroom. You’re either in the moment or you’re not.
William Murphy explains, “This is a home rather than just a hotel. It’s full of history too. There are ghosts – but they’re all good! The painting over the hall fireplace is of Lady Casement. She appears to be watching everything going on around her. My mother was redecorating a bedroom and uncovered Roger Casement’s signature under the wallpaper. She had his signature certified – it’s protected now in a glass display on the wall. Seamus Heaney was a regular at Bel-Air and spent time writing here. We’ve a 200 acre farm and 50 horses.”
It’s still very much a country house so Bel-Air has done well for itself. Not even a modern extension. The same can’t be said for an Eccles manor north of the Black Pig’s Dyke. Ecclesville in Fintona, County Tyrone, was the seat of another branch of the Barony. Two refined neoclassical main elevations were placed at right angles to each other like Castle Grove: a six bay slightly asymmetric entrance front and a five bay symmetric garden front. Breakfronts between dentil corniced setbacks and ground floor windows set in blind segmental arches gave rhythm and subtle character. The interior was equally fine, especially the plasterwork in the interlinked drawing room and music room.
The last owner of Ecclesville was the rather jolly cross-dressing multi-barrelled man-about-town Raymond Saville Connolly de Montmorency Lecky-Browne-Lecky. His chauffeur driven two toned green Austin 16 was often spotted around Fintona and nearby Omagh. Clad in his trademark mauve suits, his penchant for performing convinced him to convert a barn into a theatre. He died in 1961 aged 80, leaving his estate to the nation. Three centuries of heirlooms were auctioned by Ross’s Auctioneers of Belfast raising £23,500. No buyer was found for the house and after a stint as a nursing home, it was demolished in 1978. Traces of Ecclesville still remain. The name lives on in the Ecclesville Equestrian Centre built on the estate. Its entrance piers and sweep of railings are just about intact. A salvaged stone plaque of the Eccles family arms dated 1703 which was placed over the front door of the house, although surely predating it, is on an outbuilding.
At the top of Church Street in Fintona, rising out of the overgrown cemetery is a statue of a female clinging to a cross. On its plinth are the words: “In memory of my beloved husband John Stuart Eccles of Ecclesville County Tyrone who died the 24th of April 1886 aged 38 years | Eldest son of the late Charles Eccles Esq who died the 4th of November 1869 | Also of my two infant boys. This monument is erected by his sorrowing widow. ‘Suffer little children to come onto me and forbid them not; for such is the Kingdom of God.’” The widow is buried beneath the statue: “This tablet has been placed here by Rose and Dosie Eccles in memory of their beloved mother Frances Caroline Eccles who died 12th February 1887.” A stone dog guards her final resting place. Bel-Air and Ecclesville: two houses, an overlapping family history, sashes and Casements, two fates.
Got Plastered | A Rendering
On a recent visit to Polesden Lacey in Surrey the lawns resembled a scene from a Baz Luhrmann movie. In the sweltering heat, a jazz band serenaded hordes of picnickers, sightseers and sunbathers on the lawn. All that was missing was Gatsby romancing Daisy in the loggia. Another recent trip was to Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, once England’s least known country house. On a misty day, not only was the car park full but the fields had been turned into an overflow. Tours of the house were timed to avoid overcrowding.
A visit to Lissan House in Tyrone earlier this summer couldn’t have been more different. On a bright Saturday afternoon, the place was as deserted as when the last owner Hazel Dolling née Staples lived there alone. Wuthering Heights with neither Heathcliff nor Cathy at home. Is it a general Irish malaise about the gentry while across the water, brown sign hunters in their Hunters queue to see how the other 0.1% lived? Admittedly both National Trust houses mentioned are close to conurbations while Lissan House is miles from anywhere. The nearest town is Cookstown which reputedly has the widest street in Ireland. Population circa 11,000.
“I hope you felt privileged to have it all to yourselves,” begins Nicholas Groves-Raines. His architectural practice was responsible for the recent restoration of the house. “Lissan is a hidden, secret place and that is part of its great charm. It is well off the main tourist routes, the M1 and M2, and away from the tourist centres such as the north coast and Belfast, making it harder to entice visitors. However it is used by the local community and on a number of occasions they have even had to employ overspill parking for events.”
He explains, “The works recently completed at Lissan are only a first phase of a larger scheme to redevelop the demesne and bring all of the derelict buildings back into use as funds allow. In the next few years, it is hoped that Lissan will become a much more lively place whilst retaining its unique character. It would be good to firmly place Lissan House on the tourist map of Northern Ireland.” Lissan had its 15 inches of fame back in 2007 when Mrs Dolling fronted the campaign to win funding on the TV programme Restoration. In the end it lost out to Manchester’s Victoria Baths. Again a case of population density influencing situations.
Witnessing early on in his career the needless destruction of historic town centres and buildings in the name of progress persuaded Nicholas to specialise in conservation. “I am now an accredited conservation architect but work on a variety of projects including new builds,” he says. Nicholas puts his money where his mouth is: Lamb’s House to be precise. That is his Grade A listed office, an early 17th century Scottish baronial pile in Edinburgh.
“Newhailes, just outside Edinburgh, is like Lissan,” Nicholas continues. “Now run by the National Trust for Scotland as a visitor attraction, it too was used as a family house until recently. Newhailes is a time capsule from the 18th century, having changed little from that period. Like much of Lissan, it remains pretty much as it was when the Trust acquired it. The house hasn’t been ‘restored’ as such, having only had essential repairs carried out to preserve it for the future.”
The exterior of Lissan House has changed, though. Out, mostly, went the casement windows. Gone is the one shade of grey of the walls. Nicholas relates, “Early photographs show the house had sash and case windows until the late 19th century. A few sashes had been reused in the buildings, so we did have good examples of the original detailing to work from. The modern casements were constructed from inferior quality timber and were not weatherproof due to poor workmanship and rot. They were crudely fitted into the former sash boxes that were still built into the walls. The majority were beyond repair and so a decision had to be made about what form the new windows should take. Sashes were installed to match the originals. The few windows that are not now sashes were part of a late 19th century extension.”
The cement based render also dated from the late 19th century. “It was in poor condition and holding dampness in the walls,” he says. “There was ample evidence of the original lime render and off-white limewash remaining in sheltered areas, backed up by early photographs that confirmed the house had previously been lighter in colour. The new lime render and limewash allow the walls to breathe and should protect the house for many years to come. Limewash helps to prolong the life of lime render.”
Despite its size, the 28 bedroom Lissan House is somewhat vernacular rather than grand in nature. Davis Ducart may have been responsible for the ornamental bridge but not the house. “The Staples family were originally industrialists rather than landed gentry,” says Nicholas. “Early visitors to the house mention a noisy forge nearby where locally mined iron was worked. Lissan started out as a much smaller house that was extended again and again over the centuries as money and tastes dictated. Unlike many mansions it was not built in a single phase to the designs of a professional architect or master builder. It is an accumulation of its varied history.” Lissan House Trustees now look after the house and estate.
Nicholas ends, “Lissan is unique and contains relics and remnants from all of its past, some of which are probably still hidden.” Visible charming quirks and quirky charms include the suspended glazed corridor to the rear resembling a train carriage mid air. The standalone bow fronted coachman’s room linked only to the front of the house by the arched canopy of the porte-cochère. The amber paned double glazed bay window bulging out of the side elevation. Best of all is the staircase which consumes all three-and-a-half storeys of the cavernous main hall with more dog legs than Crufts.