Castle Ward is the most famous example of architectural schizophrenia in Ulster. High street bank neoclassicism one front; Strawberry Hill Gothick, the other. The two main elevations are stylistically divorced from each other. The two styles of Castle Dobbs may be closer relatives in taste but intertwine on the same elevations. It’s (likely) an early 18th century James Gibbs Pattern Book house with (likely) mid 19th century Sir Charles Lanyon accretions creeping round it like ivy.
Benburb Manor in County Tyrone – red brick, chamfered bay windows, high gables – is like a suburban Belfast villa on steroids. It was built in 1887 to the design of the prolific architect William Henry Lynn when he was in his late 50s. The house is a more restrained version of Castle Leslie and that County Monaghan mansion isn’t exactly externally ostentatious. Perhaps breaking away from his professional partner Sir Charles Lanyon allowed Wills to rationalise his style. Or maybe it was just tight purse strings of his client James Bruce, a Belfast businessman. Stone bands are the only tiny flash of exuberance. James had bought the estate from Viscount Powerscourt 11 years earlier.
Benburb is now a wonderful asset to the community, a hidden highlight of this far flung edge of Ulster. In 1949 the house was bought by the Servite Fathers as a priory. This has broadened into the Benburb Centre, a “house of healing and reconciliation”. Over the years poets (Seamus Heaney) have taught and artists (John Vallely) have wrought works and theatre directors (Tyrone Guthrie) have sought solitude here.
The village – all one street of it or maybe two at a push – is lined with delightfully quaint estate cottages. On a balmy Sunday morning in Benburb, there’s the clink of coffee cups in the stables courtyard café; the singing of hymns from the open door of St Patrick’s; the prayerful footsteps of visitors on retreat treading through the forest; the rush of water far below; and the sound of silence at the Hermitage.
“The Benburb Manorial Estate. Descriptive Particulars of Sale, with Plans and Conditions of Sale, of an Exceedingly valuable and highly important Freehold Manorial Domain containing altogether about 9,290 A. 1 R. 25 P. A splendid Investment in rich Agricultural Land, of which it may be said hardly one Acre is uncultivated. It is also exceedingly well adapted to Residential Purposes, and many Sites for the construction of a Mansion as a central and appropriate Residence for so important an Estate. Benburb is, with the exception of a few Acres, all within a Ring Fence, and is situate between the Towns of Armagh on the South, Dungannon on the North, Moy on the East, Auchnacloy and Caledon on the West, within 40 miles of Belfast, well served by lines of Railway, so as to render it accessible from the parts. The lands are chiefly in arable and grass, well watered and undulating, and the Property as a whole does not differ materially from a well circumstanced Estate in the English Midlands, excepting that the cultivation of Flax here receives primary attention. It is intersected by good hard Roads, and divided into convenient Farms with excellent buildings and cottages.
The Village of Benburb is a neat and clean dependency, and is quite of a model character. The ancient Castle and the Manor of Benburb are included, and the whole Property produces more than £9,000 per annum, which magnificent Rent Roll, lately adjusted under a friendly arbitration (where it will remain until another increase is required), offers a specially well secured Income. The Sporting is excellent, and is reserved to the Landlord. Hunting can be obtained within a short distance. The Blackwater bounds a considerable portion of the Estate, and is a capital Salmon River; and as a whole it is confidently offered as a splendid Investment in Land, adapted to the large Capitalist who seeks such an outlet for his money to produce a higher return than can be found in the soil of England.
To be sold by Auction, by Messrs E and H Lumley at the Mart, Tokenhouse Yard, Lothbury, London, on Tuesday, the 22nd day of August, 1876, at two o’clock precisely – in One Lot, unless an acceptable offer be previously made by Private Contract. John Sloan, at the Village of Benburb, will show the Property. Printed Particulars of Sale, with Conditions and Plan, may be obtained of Robert Dixon, Esq, Solicitor, No.5, Finsbury Square, London; Messrs S S and E Reeves and Sons, Solicitors, No.17, Merrion Square East, Dublin; George Posnett, Esq, Enniskerry, County Wicklow; at the Imperial and the Royal Hotels, Belfast; the Gresham and the Shelburne [sic] Hotels, Dublin; the Charlemont Arms Hotel, Armagh; Morris’s Hotel, Dungannon; the Imperial Hotel, Cork; at the Auction Mart, London; and of Messrs Edward and Henry Lumley, Land Agents and Auctioneers, 31 and 32, St James’s Street, Piccadilly, London.”
A phalanx of genteel residences, sphinx-like architectural sentinels, guards the east coast of Belfast Lough. Monuments to elaborately espaliered family trees, long forgotten aristocrats and plutocrats, sepia tinted sequins and foxtrots, Elysia lost to rampant suburbia. Sequestered by sequoias is Abbeydene House. The building was shorn of accretions when it was restored as part of a late 20th century redevelopment of the estate. Thus Abbeydene stands in mid Victorian sandstone glory amidst mildly colonial neighbours. The American style has some historic bearing: General Eisenhower lunched at the house in 1945 when it was owned by Mayor McCullough. Sir Crawford McCullough was the instigator of the five minute (since shortened to two minute) silence for fallen soldiers.
Lots of original features are retained at Abbeydene, restored and reinstated following its stint as a nursing home. The pair of enormous bow windows to the rear, perfect for watching ships cruise along Belfast Lough while breakfasting, have curved glass and elaborate pelmets. Egg and dart architraves, niches, arches, fireplaces and a carved staircase all add character. Five of the bedrooms are accessed off a spacious first floor sitting room lit by a tripartite window over the entrance portico. A further three are hidden under the eaves. Abbeydene is Merrythought Café meets country house.
Anne was born in Downpatrick and spent her early childhood in Killyleagh, County Down, a town dominated by a fairytale castle built in 1180 and strategically located overlooking Strangford Lough to defend the town against the Vikings. It was adapted in the 1850s by the architect Sir Charles Lanyon. The castle has a colourful history which includes murder, a contested inheritance and a Judgement of Solomon. It’s now inhabited by the Rowan Hamilton family and is marketed as a self catering destination. Anne remembers going with her mother to the castle’s market garden to buy vegetables.
While at Edinburgh she was elected President of the Sculpture and of the Drama Society whose former President was the playwright John Antrobus. She wrote and produced two plays one of which is now in the archive of the Traverse Theatre in the city. Anne’s interest in theatre stems from her association with the legendary Mary O’Malley, founder of the Lyric Players Theatre Belfast, as a scene painter. In later years Anne was elected to chair the theatre’s board, setting in motion a review of its governance.
Anne took a sabbatical when her children Leon and Mary-Ann were born and moved to County Kilkenny with her husband the architect Harry Orr. There, she revived her art practice setting up Legan Castle Design Studio. She won an Irish Arts Council Travel Award to study traditional mosaic making in Ravenna’s Accademia di Belle Arti and exhibited during Kilkenny Arts Week. Her exhibition about The Troubles, titled Images of War, transferred to The Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow through the sponsorship of the journalist Kay Hingerty and the encouragement of the late Jack White, Head of Programmes at RTE, who opened the exhibition.
When Plan magazine needed a Northern Correspondent, Anne was approached. That association led to the publication of a brochure for the Festival of Architecture in Belfast for the Royal Society of Ulster Architects which subsequently evolved into the Ulster Architect magazine of which Anne was the founding editor. In the 1980s she purchased the magazine and set up a company to ensure that it would continue in publication. As publisher and editor of an architectural magazine she covered all the main building projects in the UK and Ireland with an eye to the visual arts and heritage projects. She personally interviewed high profile people including Max Clendinning, Edward Cullinan and Richard Rogers as well as covering stories throughout the UK and in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Holland, Italy and Norway. Her company was selected to take part in an entrepreneurial programme between University of Ulster and Boston College. Anne spent six months in the media department of a large advertising agency, Hill Holiday Connors Cosmopolous.
My Favourite London Hotel… Because I live in London I don’t often stay in hotels in the city but I did stay in the Tower Hotel at Tower Bridge when my daughter was married in London. It’s in a spectacular location with magnificent views of the bridge and the River Thames. Quite a few years ago I found The Manhattan Hotel in Covent Garden almost by accident. Named after Lord Louis Mountbatten, in the opulently relaxed colonial interior, you could almost transport yourself to India as it was when he was the last Viceroy. It’s now part of the Edwardian Hotels group so has probably changed somewhat since then.
My Favourite London Restaurant… I always take advice from my brother Damien and his wife Imelda when they come to London. They are both great foodies who keep me on my toes gastronomically. They lived in London before moving to France about 20 years ago but still visit regularly. So I don’t really have a favourite but I have had really good experiences with them at Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly which is a slice of medium priced Paris in London, and Vinoteca, Beak Street, Soho. Great atmosphere in both and good value.
My Favourite Local Restaurant… My favourite food is Middle Eastern so I like Beyrouths in Streatham Hill which serves simple Lebanese food, great mint tea and delicious homemade lemonade. For French food I found three courses recently at Côte Brasserie on Battersea Rise faultless. The subdued interior in muted green is cleverly lit to soften the glow over the clientele and again good value.
My Favourite Weekend Destination… It used to be Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa in Melton Mowbray where I took my family one year for a total chillout divorced from the commercialism of Christmas. Now I think it is Kelly’s Hotel in Wexford, Ireland. Architecture as such has bypassed it in that it has grown like topsy over the years due to its popularity, particularly with families. Situated right on the beach on the Wexford coast, it has one of the best private art collections in Ireland, a selection from it hanging on the hotel’s walls: Hockney, Picasso, Miró, and good contemporary Irish art as well. Sculpture defines the surrounding gardens and the collection is catalogued in a book which can be purchased at reception. The labels of their own very good wine collection and the menus for their creative and wonderful food are designed by the artist Bill Corzier.
My Favourite Country House… While I am drawn to return to the Villa Saraceno, one of the mansions designed by Andrea Palladio near Vincenza in the Veneto in northeast Italy which inspires a deceptive sense of grandiose living, the less grandstanding Rathmullan House in County Donegal wins me over largely because of its location on a seemingly endless beach – blue flag and with spectacular views of the Fanad Peninsula. It was built in the 1760s and is a typical Georgian house of the period used as a bathing house by the Bishop of Derry. One of Ireland’s leading architects, Liam McCormick, designed a new pavilion extension in 1969 and the hotel has been extended several times since then. In spite of that it still feels like visiting someone’s home because many of the original features of the house have been retained and the staff are wonderfully friendly.
My Favourite Building… I have written about many buildings over the years for various publications so I have a number of favourites including Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and the buildings of the architect who most influenced him, Louis Henry Sullivan – an almost forgotten figure – known as the father of the skyscraper which he saw as very specific to America. Although seldom credited with it, he coined the phrase ‘form follows function’. Louis’ Transportation Building for the Chicago World Fair of 1893 is a wonderful expression of architecture on the cusp of change and the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna in Minnesota of 1908 has been described as the most beautiful bank in the world. Tragically his life ended in poverty and alcoholism. My favourite building by a living architect is Ted Cullinan’s Downland Gridshell, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum of 2002. It’s a wonderful organic expression of contemporary design using traditional techniques. Ted is founder of Cullinan Studio. I sat beside him at a dinner at Queen’s University when he talked about admiring the traditional blue barns he observed on his way in from the airport. A puzzled look fell over the surrounding faces. Was this part of our architectural heritage we had missed? Was it not a case someone asked of whatever paint fell off the back of a lorry at the time they were being painted. Like the time I was suggesting programme ideas to the BBC in Belfast. I’d noticed all houses on the Shankill Road were painted dark reds, browns and ochres but houses on the Falls Road seemed to favour more pastel colours such as light grey, pale blue and yellow. Was this evidence of a significant cultural difference we should be looking at? Someone asked me had I never noticed what colours the ships in Belfast docks were painted. Aha – no expression of social significance involved at all.
My Favourite Opera…Mozart’s Magic Flute. I have loved Mozart since my school days when I did a study of Symphony No 41, better known as the Jupiter – his last. On a visit to Italy after the Venice Opera House had been burned down, a French opera troop presented a very modernistic version of The Flute in a specially constructed temporary theatre in Venice. Travelling by motor launch to this very French off-the-wall interpretation heightened the whole experience making it unforgettable. La Fenici was reconstructed “as it was, where it was,” as he said, to the designs of architect Aldo Rossi before he died.
My Favourite Artist… I have two: Peter Doig because he imbues his landscape paintings with a sense of ‘presence’. There is a feeling of ‘the hour before the dawn’, of menace and the unknown with an uncategorisable technique. My second favourite is the East German artist Anselm Kiefer. I went to his retrospective at the Royal Academy last year and was almost speechless at the breadth of his work. Mostly I admire him for how he stepped up to German history with all its connotations and for his continued experimentation with various forms of expression and media.
My Favourite Scent…Jo Malone at the moment but I have been a follower of Estée Lauder for years mainly because my mother used her fragrances.
My Favourite Fashion Designer… I like classic clothes and good tailoring so I have a soft spot for Jean Muir. I also like the simplicity of Armani. When I am in Donegal I call on Magee to have a look at their tweeds. My mother gave me a magnificent tailored coat in a beautiful mix of Donegal tweed which, unfortunately, I need to lose a few kilos to wear.
My Favourite Charity… I support The National Brain Appeal and was delighted that a watercolour I donated to an exhibition at the Oxo Tower last year sold in aid of the charity.
My Favourite Pastime… Definitely reading and – running almost neck and neck – drawing.
County Tyrone sure isn’t the most obvious location to come across an overblown Tudorbethan mansion. This half timbered affair would look more at home in the Surrey Hills. Southeast England, not northwest Ulster. A Cyclopean scaled forerunner to Stockbroker’s Tudor semi d’s. The landscaped gardens are an attempt to tame the wildness of this rainswept region. It’s not surprising, then, to learn the architect of Sion House was an Englishman.
The original early 19th century house, which would later be engulfed through rebuilding, was a much more typical country house of this region. It was a mildly Italianate three bay wide by three bay deep stone faced two storey house built in 1846 to the design of the illustrious Sir Charles Lanyon, a starchitect of his day. A 19th century John O’Connell. Less than four decades later, William Unsworth designed a replacement house. With gusto.
William Unsworth is famed for designing the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps that’s where he developed his penchant for all things half timbered. He was mates with Sir Edwin Lutyens. Ned also knew his jettied projections from his mullioned multi diamond paned canted bay windows. William just happened to be the son-in-law of his client James Herdman. He was also brother-in-law of the celebrated Missionary of Morocco, Emma Herdman.
The Herdmans arrived in Ireland from Ayrshire in 1699. This Plantation family swiftly established itself as big time farmers. At the time of the first potato famine of 1835, the Herdman brothers James, John and George upped sticks to the sticks, moving from Belfast to the district of Seein in County Tyrone. Adopt a broad Ulster country accent and saying it aloud you can hear how Seein evolved into Sion. Those were the days when spelling – for those who could actually write – was idiosyncratic at best.
John Herdman had gone into partnership in 1833 with Thomas, Andrew and St Clair Mulholland who owned York Street Linen Mill in Belfast. The Herdman brothers brought this expertise to the development of a new spinning mill at Sion. Not content with just building a country house and mill, the Herdmans philanthropically added a model village, Ulster’s answer to New Lanark. Soon there was a shop, cricket club, fishing club and cottages fitted out with – ta dah! – newfangled gas as soon as it became available. William Unsworth also designed a gatehouse to frame the main entrance. Again, he discontinued the tradition of single storey demure vaguely neoclassical gatelodges. Instead a Hansel and Gretel version of the black and white three storey gatehouse of Stokesay Castle appeared.
“Sion House was my grandfather’s home. I lived there after the Second World War. It was such a busy house! As well as my relatives and Welsh nanny, there was a cook and four or five parlour maids. A dairy maid, washer maid and four under gardeners came during the day. The head gardener lived in the gatelodge. It was very self sufficient. In fact the whole of Sion Mills was like that. When we needed a plumber, he came from the mill.
The Italianate gardens were designed in 1909 by Inigo Triggs of Hampshire. Inigo was in partnership with William Unsworth and a friend of Gertrude Jekyll. I was recently asked to go along to Glenmakieran in Cultra which I’m quite sure is another Unsworth house. In 1955 a fire threatened to destroy Sion House. Such a huge house. Nevertheless my grandfather rebuilt all 50 rooms exactly as they were before. I remember the oak panelling in the dining room and linen wall covering in the drawing room.
In 1967 it took just one day for Ross’s to auction the house and its contents, even the books. The house went for only £5,000 and the contents £3,000. Fortunately Sion House is well documented. My grandfather wrote daily letters from 1934 to 1964 chronicling life in the house. At the moment I’m writing a book about my mother Maud Harriet Herdman MBE JP, a fascinating person.”
After much ado involving a collapsing clock tower and the first Compulsory Purchase Order of a Building at Risk in Northern Ireland, Hearth Preservation Trust restored the roadside stables block. It’s now a tearoom and education centre. But something is awry at Sion House. The gatehouse is boarded up; the river overgrown; the façade butchered; the lean-to fallen over. It’s as if the struggle to combat the barrenness of its far flung location has proved too much. The tall neo Elizabethan chimneystacks have been lopped off; the veranda has vanished like the lost ‘h’ from verandah. Worst of all, the back of the house looks like it’s been struck by a meteorite. There’s a gaping hole in the centre in its centre. A spiffingly watchable tragedy. Another Irish country house bites the dust. And then there were none. Less of a whodunit and more of a whodidn’tdoit. Ulster says so.
The Irish Builder flatteringly recorded the rebuilt Sion House in its December 1884 publication. Even then, the country house halcyon days had less than half a century to go. Sion House, besides being almost unique in style, was one of the last country houses to be built between the Gael and the Pale.
“Sion House, the residence of E T Herdman Esq, JP, which, for some time past, has been undergoing extensive alterations, is now completed, and as the building and grounds are singularly picturesque and pleasing, a short description of what is unquestionably one of the most unique and remarkable examples of domestic architecture in the North of Ireland, will be read with interest. The approach to the grounds is on the main road from Strabane to Baronscourt, about three miles from the latter place, and is entered through a delightfully quaint Old English gatehouse of striking originality, containing a porter’s residence and covered porch carried over the roadway.
Winding down the graceful sweep of the avenue, through the wooded grounds which appear to have been laid out with considerable judgment many years ago, we catch a glimpse of the house, reflected in the artificial ponds formed in the ravine that is crossed by a two arch stone bridge of quite medieval character.
As we approach the house, the general grouping of the house is most pleasing, and the full effects of the rich colouring of the red tiled roof is now apparent, diversified with quick pitched gables, quaint dormers, the beautifully moulded red brick chimneys, the skyline being covered by the Tyrone mountains and the village church in the distance. The style of the building is late Tudor of the half timber character, which, though it has been described as showing a singular and absurd heterogeneousness in detail, yet gives wonderful picturesqueness in general effect. The principle entrance is on the north side, through a verandah, supported on open carved brackets, in which is placed an old oak settle, elaborately carved and interlaced with natural foliage in bas-relief. On entering through an enclosed porch we are ushered into a spacious panelled hall, with its quaint old fashioned staircase, open fireplace, and wood chimneypiece, with overmantel extending to the height of the panelling.
The screens enclosing the entrance porch, as also that from the garden entrance to the southeast side, are filled in with lead lights, glazed with painted glass, and emblazoned with national and industrial emblems, monograms and coats of arms. The billiard room, which is in a semi-detached position, and entered from the east side of the hall, is very characteristic of the style of the building, having the principal roof timbers exposed, and forming the pitched ceiling into richly moulded panels. The walls are wainscoted to a height of five feet in richly moulded and panelled work. The fireplace is open, and lined with artistic glazed earthenware tiles of a deep green colour and waved surface, giving a pleasing variety of shadow, and is deeply recessed under a quaint panelled many centred architectural, freely treated, forming a most cosy chimney corner with luxurious settles on each side. On a raised hearth, laid with terra-metallic tiles in a most intricate pattern, are some of the finest examples of wrought iron dogs we have ever seen. There is also in this chimney nook a charming little window, placed so as to afford a view of the pleasure grounds. The reception rooms are on the south side. On entering the spacious drawing room we notice particularly the panelled arch across the further end, which forms a frame to the beautiful mullioned bay window, enriched with patterned lead glazing.
From the recess of the bay a side doorway leads to a slightly elevated verandah, enclosed with balustrade, extending the full length of the south façade, and leading to the beautiful conservatory on the south side, with a short flight of steps giving access to the tennis lawns. The dining room is enclosed off this verandah by a handsome mullioned screen, having folding doors and patterned lead glazing similar to the drawing room bay. The walls of this room are panelled and moulded in English figured oak, enriched with carvings, the arrangement of the buffet being an especial feature, as it forms part of the room in a coved recess and designed with the panelling. The fireplace is open and lined with tiles, in two colours, of the same description as the billiard room, with chimneypiece and overmantel of carved oak, having bevelled mirrors, and arms carved in the most artistic manner in the centre panel. The mullioned screen masked by a gracefully carved arch, made in oak, and capped (as is also the panelling over the buffet and mantel) with a moulded cornice, supported with artistically carved brackets and richly dentilled bed mouldings. Here and in the drawing room the ceilings are of elaborate workmanship, enriched in fibrous plaster, with moulded ribs in strong relief, and massive cornices, with chastely enriched members. The floor, like those of the principal rooms and halls, is laid in solid oak parquetry.
The library and morning room are situated on the north side. These rooms are complete in arrangement for comfort, most of the required furniture and fittings being constructed with the building and in perfect character. The culinary departments are situated on the west side, on the same level with the principal rooms. They are of the most perfect and convenient description, containing every modern appliance for suitable working.
Here also the evidence of artistic design is to be observed, more especially on a wrought iron hood, constructed over the range for the purpose of carrying off the odour from the cooking, to flues provided for that purpose. The hood is a very intricate piece of wrought iron work, which, we learn, was manufactured at the engineering works of the Messrs Herdman and Co. The upper floors contain 16 spacious bedrooms and dressing rooms. Several of the bedrooms are obtained by the judicious pitching up the main roof, and obtaining light through the quaintly shaped dormers, which form so marked a feature on the roofline. There is a spacious basement extending under the entire area of the building, which contains the usual offices, and in which are placed two of Pitt’s patented apparatus, now so favourable known for warming and ventilating, by which warmed fresh air is conveyed to the various apartments and corridors.
One of the great features of the exterior elevations is the balconies, of which there are several, whence views of the varied scenery and charming surroundings can be obtained. There is also easy access to the leads of the roof, from which more extended views of the beautiful and romantic valleys of the Foyle and Mourne, together with the picturesquely grouped plantations of the Baronscourt demesne, and the far-famed mountains of Barnesmore, Betsy Bell, and Mary Gray, can be seen in the distance. From this point a magnificent bird’s eye view can be obtained of the village of Sion and of the palatial buildings which form the flax spinning mills and offices of the Messrs Herdman and Co, which we are pleased to observe are so rapidly extending their lines and improving under the enlightened policy of the spirited owners.
The gardens and grounds are laid out in terraces, with low red brick walls, in character with the house, which give great effect when viewed from the several levels. It is noticeable throughout the perfectness and richness of all the detail, which has been carried out with great care, from special designs. The architect has succeeded in giving an individuality and picturesqueness of outline, due proportion of its parts and beauty of the whole, to the buildings and grounds, which have not been heretofore obtained in this part of the country.
The execution of the work throughout was entrusted (without competition) to Mr J Ballantine, builder, of this city, who has carried it out in a style of workmanship maintaining his high reputation as a builder, and reflecting credit on the skilled tradesmen associated with him in the work. The entire building, gate entrance, bridge, grounds, fittings, and principal furniture have been carried out according to the designs, and under the superintendence of Mr W F Unsworth, FRIBA.”
Every view of this multifaceted castle unveils a different vein. The gunpowder grey entrance front: rectilinear massing and rhythmic rows of windows. The steel grey driveway elevation: 12th century abbey ruins and pointy dormers between turrets. The bleached white courtyard: a picturesque jumble of crow stepped gables and battlemented bow windows. The sunburnt terracotta garden front: pillared arches and stygian loggias swinging low under cantilevered boxy glasshouses. Ever since 1826, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce fixed the image of his family courtyard in Gras on a bitumen glass plate, architecture and photography have been fond bedfellows. This is despite one being about static volumes and the other decisive moments. Yet is even Huntington Castle beyond expression in a hackneyed Hockney Polaroid collage, provenance and ambiance rarely surviving the transition from three dimensions to two? Ancestors of the Durdin Robertsons include Lord Rosse founder of the Hellfire Club, flame haired Grace O’Malley Pirate Queen of Connaught and, a little further back, Noah’s niece Mrs Benson. Notable visitors darkening its doors over the years have included WB Yeats, Mick Jagger, Hugh Grant and Lavender’s Blue. But even more notably, the Durdin Robertsons are still very much in residence.
The same cannot be said, it seems, for just about every other country house in Ireland. Heritage is crumbling. No one’s picnicking, foreign or indigenous, in this land. One person who knows all too well is chartered building surveyor and architectural historian Frank Keohane. He’s been tasked with compiling Buildings of Ireland Four Cork, the Irish version of a Pevsner Guide. “I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more books are sold on ruins than intact country houses,” Frank ruminates. “Take the semi derelict Loftus Hall which is really exposed near a cliff on the Wexford coast. The owner does ghost tours – ‘the devil’ comes for dinner, and so on. But you need to be practical, ok? Ruins may photograph well but sooner or later if left they disappear. I hope it’s a section in Loftus Hall’s history and not the final chapter.”
Frank records, “Out of the 545 entries in Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, 18 have been ‘restored’. But I use the term loosely. Dunboy Castle, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier in Hungry Hill, was to be converted into a six star hotel. Horrific extensions were added though! Lough Eske would have collapsed if it hadn’t been rebuilt and converted into a hotel but it’s a bit trim and prim for me. Kilronan Castle has been loosely restored with an extension in a pseudo style of what I don’t know. The shell of Killeen Castle has been restored but lies empty surrounded by a golf course. Dromore Castle, of international importance, still in ruins. Bellamont Forest, Carriglas, Hazelwood, Whitfield Court, contents of Bantry House… all at risk. At least at Killua Castle the family have started by restoring and moving into the wing.” He highlights that Monkstown Castle has fortunately been saved by Cork County Council.
Huntington Castle is now home to Alexander Durdin Robertson, his artist wife Clare and their sons Herbert, Edmonde and Caspar, following a sojourn near Northcote Road in London. Alex’s mother lives in the coachman’s cottage in the courtyard. Built as a garrison in the 1620s and extended right up to the 1920s, it was converted to a home in 1673 by the first and last Lord Esmonde, passing by marriage into the descendants of the current incumbents. Restored 17th century terraced formal Italian gardens, rectangles of lawn and a circular pond, darkly orchidaceous in the majestic last December, wrap around the castle like ghostly folds of a billowing crinoline dress. A 600 year old silent avenue of tall French lime trees connects the castle to Clonegal. The village guards a pass through the Blackstairs Mountains where Counties Carlow, Wexford and Wicklow collide. “Mandoran,” as Lady Olivia Robertson would say. “County Westcommon,” as Molly Keane would call it. Clonegal is cute as a cupcake – a river runs through it – with pretty Georgian terraces. The only discordant note is a smattering of uPVC framed windows, the plastic scourge of heritage.
Alex’s great grandfather was the last architect to alter the building, making minor changes and erecting concrete framed greenhouses in the kitchen garden. Manning Robertson was not just a mere architect but an influential town planner and writer. He produced plans for Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Limerick, introducing the concept of welfare homes, when the profession was in its infancy. The journey from modern to modernism to modernity had begun. Town planning mightn’t be the sexiest of subjects but his seminal 1924 book Everyday Architecture, as well as being aeons ahead of its time, is a riot, full of titillating tips and illuminating ruminations. “Unfortunately uneducated taste is nearly always bad.” Or, “The glazing of a well proportioned window is divided into vertical panes; one horizontal window might be tolerated in a village, just as no village is complete without its idiot, but the whimsical should never usurp the place of the normal.” Unexpected chapter headings shout “Slippery Jane”, “On Lies and Evasions” and “Smoke, Filth, and Fog”.
Manning’s daughter Olivia inherited his talent for writing and published five books. Field of the Stranger, a highly original read, won the London Book Society Choice award in 1948. Another polymath, an explorer of psychic areas, a landed cosmonaut, she illustrated her novel with her own wildly witty black ink drawings. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at priceless passages such as Olivia’s description of the antics of a fortune teller, “She’s great at it – once she told Margaret how she saw a bright change coming, and Margaret got the job in Dublin in no time after.” Another literary gem worthy of Hunderby is the incident of the wart. “I knew a young chap – he was a footman at Mount Charles – and he had a wart, and he was ashamed to hand round the plates on account of his wart. I was always warning him not to meddle with it, but he cut it, and what happened but he got the jaw-lock and died in a fearful manner, twisted and turned like a shrimp, with his heels touching his head.” Arch humour continues with chat over afternoon tea about the perils of mixing tipples with talent. “’Why,’ declared Miss Pringle, ‘I have lived for many years in Booterstown, Dublin, and everybody knows that Dublin is swarming with writers and artists, most of them geniuses and all drinking themselves to death. I am told one cannot enter a public house without falling over them. Or them falling over you more likely.’” Strangers misbehaving.
The hilarity of an amateurs’ night out is accurately documented in a calamitous village play scene: “Amidst an excited murmuring, the curtain jerked spasmodically and slid up on the left side; our expectation was increased by a glimpse of a posed female chorus in plumed bonnets, violet velvet capes and white Empire gowns. The curtain fell. There was another jerk, and this time the right hand curtain jumped up coquettishly, only to sag back to its comrade… As if to show that they had only been joking, the curtains suddenly fled dramatically apart…” Her tragicomedy reaches a crescendo when the chorus starts belting out The Charladies’ Ball in “nightmarish counterpoint”. Who will survive?
Olivia fretted in her prizewinning novel about the disappearance of country houses: “I was afraid that Mount Granite might fall a prey to house demolishers, who were exploiting the temporary shortage of materials by buying up eyesores, gaping roofless to the weather. I had seen so many wreckages of architecture, besides rare specimen trees felled and sold for firewood, that I was fearful such a fate might befall the Wilderness.” Three decades later John Cornforth would worry in Country Life, “A policy for historic houses seems to be much harder to work out in Ireland than in England for historical as well as economic reasons, and places of the importance of Castletown, County Kildare, and Malahide Castle, County Dublin, have only survived through lucky last ditch operations, organised in the first case by Mr Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgian Society, and in the second by Dublin Tourism in conjunction with the National Gallery and Dublin County Council.” As Frank Keohane observes, hotelisation was nearly as great a threat as demolition during the crazy boom years. One word: Carton. Two words: Farnham House. Saved, but at what a cost. Love | Hate. Such Ballyhoo. Wish they were Luton Hoo. Anyhoo. It can be done and undone. Three syllables. Ballyfin.
It’s all about Huntington this wintry weekend. First sight of the castle is a romantic fairy tale come true. A mosaic of yellow squares (in 1888 the house was the first in Ireland to have electricity installed) flickers through a veil beyond the Pale of leafless spidery trees entwined with Celtic mist and mysticism. It’s crowned by jagged toothed battlements (spaces for fairies) silhouetted against the melancholic velvety sky. Country Life, Tatler and Vogue are stacked up in coffee table-demolishing piles. Huntington is so photogenic it could easily be the cover boy of all three. A pair of peacocks, two pigs, two cats (Nutmeg and Spook), two lurchers (Country Life’s “guilty pleasure”) and three dachshunds (but no partridge in a pear tree) greet strangers. There are flowers on the first floor and soldiers in the attic. Only the latter are dead, strangers in the night. “I believe time is spiral,” confides Alex. “It’s linked to quantum mechanics. When apparitions appear they’re like jumbled video clips out of sequence.” He leads ghost tours at Halloween and the house and gardens are open to the public most of the year round. The castle must pay for its keep (pun). “We’ve developed bed and breakfast around this tourism. These houses drink money. It costs €25 an hour to heat Huntington. We’re not suitable for weddings and turning the house into a venue would destroy the fabric.”
Twin gilt mirrors in the drawing room frame back-to-front latticework, crewelwork, fretwork, trestlework, needlework and a piece a’ work. Reflections in the glass; reflections of the past. “The Aubusson tapestries are incredibly all done by hand,” relates Alex. “They’re a real show of wealth, of opulence. The arrow slit window cut into one of the tapestries is a retained feature of the original castle.” It’s Friday night. Time for dinner. Outdoors, the gardens slowly disappear into the tender coming night. Whatsoever things are lovely, think on these things. The dining room is dim with haunted shadow, walls fading through a glass darkly to trompe l’oeil in a mirage of Bedouin tent hangings and a fanfare of fanlights. Centuries of ancestors in oil paintings watch the strangers in the room, forever a room of their own:
Barbara for one has never left Huntington. Dinner by candlelight is served. Winter salad with goat’s cheese and soda bread, beetroot aplenty, for starter. Salmon steak, creamed Wexford potatoes and seasonal vegetables with dill mayonnaise is the main event, a rhapsody to the countryside. “We use eggs from our own hens,” notes Alex. Pudding is elderflower posset (raspberries on top; Florentine to the side) just as good as Culpeper’s in Spitalfields lemon variety. Which is very good indeed. Both times it’s a work of quaffable art.
And so to bed. Leaving behind the dying embers of the day, the journey, as rambling as this article, takes sighing twists and tiring turns along narrow wainscot lined passages and staircases heavily hung with armoury and taxidermy and history. “That snouty crocodile,” points Alex, “was shot by Great Aunt Nora.” The naming of bedrooms is a rather charming country house tradition. In clockwise order, the principal bedrooms at the recently sold Drenagh, a Sir Charles Lanyon special marooned in the mosses of Limavady, are Orange Room, Monroe Room, Bow Room, Blue Room, Balcony Room, South Room, Green Room, Rose Room, Yew Room, Chinese Room, McQuillan Room, McDonnel Room and Clock Room. At Huntington, in any (very) old order, the principal bedrooms are similarly named after colours and features: Blue Room, Green Room, Yellow Room, White Room, Red Room Mount and Leinster Room. As Ned Lutyens once remarked, “I am most excited about towels.” He’d love the bathrooms here. They’re the first resort, the last word, something to blog home about, fit for the life of Tony O’Reilly. Elizabethan style plasterwork ain’t the norm for an en suite. Yep. It is here. Slumber in a four poster bed comes swiftly. But the solemn blackness of the night is rudely interrupted by bloodcurdling screeching. Yikes! Is it a banshee?
It’s Sunday morning. “That noise you heard the first night is an owl’s mating call,” Alex confirms. Phew. The agony (of leaving Huntington) and the eggs to see (for breakfast). But London’s calling, a city full of strangers. Contemporary Indian architect Charles Correa considers, “Film is very close to architecture. Both are dealing with the way light falls on an object and defines it but the difference is time. A director can create huge shifts in emotion with a jump-cut or an edit but architecture cannot move, so an architect can’t produce those sudden shifts. On the other hand, that stillness is also a magnificent property.” Nowhere is as magnificently still as the otherworldliness of Huntington Castle. Rooms and gardens and gardens in rooms and rooms in gardens have evolved at an imperceptible pace over half a millennium. That wonderfully liveable layering of history inherent in homes such as architectural supremo Fergus Flynn-Rogers’ Omra Park, clinging unselfconsciously to the crooked coastline of Omeath, is apparent upon first entering the house. The unmistakable patina of age, authenticity whatever that is, once lost when the marquee of contents is auctioned and the green neon ‘Fire Exit’ sign flashes above the entrance door, is impossible to replicate. A proper ancestral pile. A gothic pastoral ideal. A place of Arcadian awakening. Not too trim and prim. Frank Keohane would approve. So very Northanger Abbey. So very Castle Rackrent. So very Fern Hill. So very Danielstown. So very Elgin Lodge. So very Huntington Castle. Whisper it. So very.