For You Have Been Our Refuge
Maurice Craig wrote an article in Country Life, 1949, Some Smaller Irish Houses, “Most of the great houses of Ireland have received some descriptive attention, first from the Irish Georgian Society, and more recently from Country Life. At the other end of the social scale the Irish cottage has interested field geographers and anthropologists such as Dr Estyn Evans (Irish Heritage, 1942). But in between there are, in Ireland as in England, a number of those ‘middling’ houses which are the backbone of vernacular architecture. Social cleavages in the great building age were sharper in Ireland than in England, so that the middle class and its monuments were less numerous than in England. But they existed nonetheless, in both town and country, and their houses are not without distinctive qualities which repay study. Neither ‘big houses nor ‘cabins’, they range from farmhouses to gentlemen farmhouses.”
In the same publication 27 years later, John Cornforth worried in an article Tourism and Irish Country Houses, “With planning and preservation arrangements in town and country still in their infancy, there is nothing to stop a purchaser buying a historic demesne for its land, splitting it up, developing it and abandoning the house.” From earls and girls in pearls to manners and manors, cut to 2022 and the current Architectural Editor of Country Life, Jeremy Musson tells us, “I’m a curious house guest, writing about Irish country houses for a British magazine, Country Life. It’s a personal odyssey. The tall walls, owners with a disarming sense of humour … Irish country houses have a special flavour. I rarely get to bed before midnight! Country Life’s publication of Irish houses is an erratic study. Country Life was established in 1897; Powerscourt House in County Wicklow was published two years later. The magazine’s founder Edward Hudson is reported to have said, ‘Lismore Castle in County Waterford I believe is very photographable.’ Mount Stewart in County Down was featured in 1935.”
Jeremy relates, “Irish houses had far larger numbers of servants than English ones and greater hospitality. The complexity of servants’ basements contrasts with the simplicity of the layout of the main rooms above. Lissadell in County Sligo is a classic example of this arrangement. My first Country Life article was Russborough in County Wicklow. I covered Farmleigh in Dublin in 1999 and Killadoon in County Kildare in 2004. I also wrote up Castle Leslie in County Monaghan in 1999. Sir Jack Leslie loved going to the local disco – he said ‘Dancing shakes up the liver!’ I remember a dinner at Drenagh in County Londonderry. Mid course, cattle invaded the lawn so we all ran outside to chase the cows away!” Somewhere needs a haha. “In 2015 I covered Kilboy House in County Tipperary, probably the most ambitious Irish country house project in recent times. Country Life is the recording angel of the Irish country house and it continues to beguile.”
Another architectural historian, Roger White, shared with us this year, “The aristocracy and gentry in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice novel had limitless leisure hours, filling some of them by visiting country houses.” And that brings us rather nicely to sitting in the music room of Collon House, County Louth. We’re guests of owners John Bentley-Dunne and Michael McMahon. “Collon House is actually three houses around a courtyard which I inherited in 1995,” explains John. “The interiors were Victorianised so we wanted to bring them back to their original Georgian appearance. The restoration took 10 years. We reinserted correct glazing bars and shutters for the windows.”
Collon House is not quite a big house and certainly not a cabin. It’s a large middling size house. “I am not sure why Anthony Foster, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, ended up building a house in this village location in 1740. His son John was the last Speaker of the Irish Commons until its dissolution by The Act of Union in 1800. It is an example of an Irish ‘long house’. The Speaker’s descendants recently came from England to visit the house.” John O’Connell says, “‘Speaker’ Foster built Mount Oriel Temple a few kilometres north of Collon. Its pedimented portico was inspired by The Temple of the Winds. The house had a room with a series of grisaille paintings by Peter de Gree which I believe ended up at Luttrellstown Castle outside Dublin.” Mount Oriel Temple is much altered and under the ownership of Cistercian monks.
“It all started with an overspill at Tankardstown House in neighbouring County Meath,” intrigues John. “The owners asked if we could take some staying guests as they were full. The rest is history.” Canopy Room, Chinese Room, Speaker Foster’s Room, French Room, Massereene Room … there’s accommodation for 22 guests at Collon House. Modern conveniences are discreet: those one metre deep walls and oversized landings come in handy for adding en suite bathrooms.
We join our distinguished fellow guests from Richmond, Virginia, for a candlelit and evening sunlit dinner of Irish country house portions and Irish country house hotel standard in the dining room. Starter is seafood cocktail wrapped in smoked salmon in seafood sauce followed by pea and coriander soup. Limoncello with lemon shavings forms the palate cleanser. When in Rome! Smoked salmon, butter mash, baby tomatoes, baby carrots and broccoli are something of the national tricolour on a plate. Lemon continues as a theme with sorbet pudding. Michael serves; John is busy in the kitchen. Coffee and chocolates are enjoyed in the music room across the staircase hall and garden hall lobby. Just in time to look out across the sunken parterre garden. Box edged flowerbeds are filled with asters, delphinium, helenium and phlox. The planting is so complementary to the tulips and hosta surrounding the fountain in the courtyard.
We enjoyed Collon and the arresting parterre garden.