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Architecture Country Houses

St Ernan’s House + Island Donegal

A Singular Existence

Lack | Kesh | Toome. The nomenclature of the villages en route to St Ernan’s Island resonates with monosyllabic North West Ulster brusqueness. Pettigo may sound more reticent but it’s full of robust no nonsense Georgian buildings backing onto the Termon River. Just before entering the jollity of Donegal Town and Magee “Specialists in Donegal Tweed” who are, for those who know best, also Specialists in lunch at the Weaver’s Loft Café, turn left, veer right, get lost, turn left again, go round the bend (physically not metaphorically), and straight ahead is the destination that inspired a murder mystery. A pink house bathed in lilac Donegal light immortalised in Paul Charles’ colourful thriller St Ernan’s Blues.

Professor Alistair Rowan, North West Ulster: “This was the island retreat of John Hamilton of Brown Hall (1800 to 1884) the author of ‘Sixty Years Experience as an Irish Landlord’. Mr Hamilton took a romantic fancy to the island, laid out a pretty garden on it, with a wall round the shore, and built a two storey Regency style cottage there between 1824 and 1826. It is five windows long with a continuous verandah running the length of its front across canted bays at either end.

The setting is indeed glorious, but the romantic whim of a young and newly married proprietor proved inconvenient. For most of each day the island was cut off either by the tide or, worse, by impassable shallows of mud. The construction of a causeway, despaired of by professional engineers, was achieved by Hamilton with free labour from the surrounding country.”

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Ashbrooke House Fermanagh + William Farrell

The Spring of Content

Dr Roderick O’Donnell, author and Country Life contributor, considers Ashbrooke House in County Fermanagh to be “a very successful Regency country house”. Kimmitt Dean notes that “this seems to have formed part of a lucrative commission for the architect, there being many buildings of similar form in the vicinity…” Such a shame the late Sir Charles Brett didn’t come west of the River Bann in his riveting series on the buildings of Ulster. It would have been interesting to hear what Charlie thought of Ashbrooke. Would he have classified it as middling or large? The front elevation stationed above a grass bank is simply divine. Aha, a haha. Five bay bliss. Formality | solidity | proportionality | materiality.

A study by Queen’s University Belfast confirms Ashbrooke’s walls are of buff pink sandstone: Ballyness Sandstone and Fermanagh Carboniferous Sandstone to be precise. This material has a lovely coloured textured finish. Just like the enigmatic standing stone on the estate. No pale smooth featureless Portland stone here. Ashbrooke House is the substantial dower house of an even larger property, Colebrooke Park. There’s an experiential reduction in scale and grandeur (yet no diminution of quality) as befits the generational decline from Viscountess to Dowager. They’re both by the same architect: William Farrell. The commodious Portaferry House in County Down is also by Will. His work has a sturdiness: an antidote to Adam style frippery. He was one of several early 19th century Dublin architects (others that spring to mind are John Bowden and John Hargrave) with country house practices. Writing in Buildings of North West Ulster, Professor Alistair Rowan summarises Ashbrooke as:

“A five bay, two storey front with big windows and a projecting solid porch with Tuscan columns. Above, a tripartite sash window. Shallow hipped roof, like the big house, but here supported on an eaves cornice with projecting stone mutules. The house has only one regular front, with a long wing behind. A plaque, in the stable yard behind, has the legend, ‘Built by Sir Henry Brooke Baronet, for the use of his tenants in the year 1830’.”

The 3rd Viscount and Viscountess Brookeborough have restored and revived and rejuvenated and reinvigorated and refurnished Colebrooke. “The house was cement rendered in the early 19th century,” notes the Viscount, Lord Lieutenant of Fermanagh and Lord-in-Waiting to the Queen. An 1891 photograph shows the south elevation in that state: the polygonal conservatory has since gone; the sunken garden was yet to come. An unpeeling revealed the rugged reddish sandstone underneath. Vast (seriously large – if anything, William Farrell got scale) reception rooms with Victorian wallpaper (and umpteen bedrooms) make it the ideal setting for shooting parties. Two paned sash windows frame uninterrupted views across the parkland.

In 1974, the executors of the 1st Viscount Brookeborough instructed Osborne King + Megran to auction the contents of the big house to cover death duties. Basil Brooke had been Prime Minister of Northern Ireland for two decades. The 2nd Viscount was also a politician. The 3rd Viscount’s brother the Honourable Christopher Brooke and his wife Amanda live in a new baronial style house on the estate. The Brooke family has been in Fermanagh since Sir Henry (High Sheriff, Governor and MP for County Donegal) was granted lands by Royal Patent in 1667. Military and public service have been something of a family tradition ever since.

In the family plot in Colebrooke Church of Ireland graveyard (a cornerstone dates the church 1765), one tombstone reads, ‘Here lies the body of Brigadier General Henry Francis Brooke eldest son of the late George Frederick Brooke of Ashbrooke and of the Lady Arabella Brooke born 13th August 1836 killed in action 15th August 1880 aged 44. He fell while commanding the sortie against the village of Dehkhoja during the siege of Kandahar, south Afghanistan, in the noble endeavour to save the life of a wounded brother officer Captain Cruikshank R.E. Greater love hath no man that this. That a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15.13.’

Amanda, a talented ceramicist who has exhibited at the Royal Ulster Academy, has turned her artistic hand(s) to decorating Ashbrooke House. It is available for parties or as a holiday let. All four reception rooms, eight bedrooms, six bathrooms and one kitchen (with Aga). The tack room and rabbit man’s cottage, outbuildings behind the main house, are now artists’ studios.

Hidden from the public for almost 200 years, now is the time for Ashbrooke House to be revealed. Literarily, not literally. Nestling in the 1,000 acre Colebrooke estate, it’s always going to be exclusive. The building is T shaped: a drawing room and dining room on either side of the entrance hall in front of an older lower wing. This arrangement allows for lots of light and airy dual aspect rooms. “I don’t like subdivided rooms so en suites are in former dressing rooms and other minor rooms,” explains Amanda. With typical 19th century disregard for convenience, the kitchen was originally located at the tip of the return. That is, as far as possible from the dining room. Not anymore. The new kitchen is next to the dining room and the old one is now a bright sitting room with exposed stone arches. Guests who can’t cook won’t cook never cook can rely on catering by French Village.

“The house had barely changed in 40 years,” she records. “But in restoring it we haven’t gone for the ‘interior designed’ look.” A more organic approach was taken: relaxed country house chic. With a few family heirlooms thrown in for good measure. A portrait of Eugene Gabriel Isabey dominates the drawing room; Reverend James Ingram guards the dining room. Architectural detailing is restrained in keeping with the exterior. The drawing room timber and marble fireplace was salvaged long ago from the ruinous Corcreevy House in Fivemiletown. Vintage fire extinguishers and milk churns marked ‘Colonel Chichester, Galgorm Castle, Ballymena’ are recycled as lampstands. There are one or two inherited colour schemes. The last Dowager’s choice of mustard walls in the dining room for instance. “That’s my late mother-in-law’s wallpaper,” smiles Amanda pointing to the trellis design zigzagging across the walls and ceiling of the blue bedroom. “Not the best for hangovers.”

Over dinner, distinguished Fermanagh architect Richard Pierce waxes lyrical about Ashbrooke: “The proportions are beautiful. The scale is beautiful. The setting is beautiful. You approach Colebrooke from above. You first see Ashbrooke from below. It’s very austere except for the porch. There’s a tremendous counterpoint between the centre and the rest. I like the fact it’s not showy. It’s quiet good taste but very good taste. What I feel about Ashbrooke is that it has a sense of neoclassicism you’d find in a St Petersburg dacha.” Amanda agrees, “There’s a purity to the design.”

“These houses aren’t museums,” Christopher believes. “They have always been sources of employment. They need to be run like businesses to survive.” He should know. He has turned Galgorm Castle outside Ballymena, another family property, into a thriving enterprise employing around 300 people. Gatelodges on the Colebrooke Park estate are holiday lets. Historically, the triumphal arch, still the main entrance to the estate, was a less successful venture. It was built for the arrival of Queen Victoria but at the last minute, she pulled a sickie. The Baroness was not amused.

It’s spring at Ashbrooke House. Dewy drumlins sprinkled with a dusting of daffodils and bluebells by day. And lambing by night: after dinner a midnight jaunt beckons across the estate to a barn full of Zwartbles sheep and lambs gambling amok. “Zwartbles sheep are very friendly and make great mothers,” observes Christopher. This Dutch breed has a distinctive blackish brown fleece and white forehead streak. Sure enough, in the wee small hours one gives birth to twin lambs. “It’s a far cry from Clapham Junction,” observes Amanda. She used to live near Lavender Hill.