“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.
“The rich man in his castle; the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly; and ordered their estate…” penned Mrs Alexander wistfully gazing beyond the river running by, through the tall trees in the green wood to the purple headed Benbulben, Europe’s only table top mountain. Little did the Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh’s wife know her hymn, first published in 1848 to raise dosh for deaf mutes (stolen children), would be an early victim of political correctness. Her Anglo Irish outlook on social immobility grated with later sensibilities so the third verse about a destined housing hierarchy disappeared. Being about Markree Castle the poor man really didn’t have too bad a time at the Francis Goodwin designed Gothic gatelodge, a piece of castle itself. Fortunately Once in Royal David’s City remains intact. The name of the castle has evolved over the last five centuries from Mercury, Marcia, Markea, Markrea and finally to Markree.
Cecil Frances Alexander wasn’t the only guest to wax lyrical. William Butler Yeats recalled, “We have always looked on the Coopers and Markree Castle as greater than the Royal Family and Buckingham Palace.” He wrote in Running to Paradise, “Poor men have grown to be rich men; and rich men grown to be poor again.” Nowt so queer as fate. Once owned by the McDonagh clan, in 1666 the land was presented to Edward Cooper, a Cromwellian soldier from Norfolk, as a reward for his role in the Siege of Limerick. Defeated Irish chieftain Conor O’Brien’s widow Red Mary married Coronet Cooper and her two sons took the surname of their stepfather. Later, the Coopers opposed the Act of Union so no dukedom, earldom or even baronetcy was bestowed upon them. A fiefdom of 36,000 acres, generating an annual income of £10,000 by 1758, must have acted as some comfort. Any doubts of lineage and loyalty are dispelled by the stained glass window of the staircase hall. Twenty generations of Coopers are iconised between Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The enlargement and embellishment of the house finally ended five years shy of the 20th century, commemorated in the date stone over the dining room French doors. In 1902 Bryan Cooper sold 30,000 acres under the Land Acts, at the same closing the basement. A seven year Indian summer was over. Benign decline in line with the times had begun.
“Markree was occupied by the Free State troops during the Civil War causing damage,” Charles reveals. “Bryan Cooper’s eldest son Francis retired in 1930 and by 1950 the family had retreated to the east wing leaving the rest of the castle empty. The majority of the remaining contents were sold off. In 1988 my older brother put Markree on the market. I’ve worked in the hotel industry at home and abroad since I was 16. My wife Mary and I decided to buy Markree with the help of large bank loans and investments from family and friends. We converted it into a country house hotel. Most of the interior needed to be restored. The roof was completely refurbished due to extensive dry rot. My daughter Patricia now manages the hotel.” The top lit billiard room suspended over the porte cochère where nothing stirs remains untouched, resembling Féau & Cie’s Parisian workshop on Rue Poncelet, fit for St Simeon Stylites (“I want to be alone.”) The family live in converted and extended castellated estate buildings. Somewhere between the castle and the gate.
Phew. Still no modern wing repro’d up to the nines. Markree remains 100 percent castle. For Pringle clad budding Rory McIlroys there are six golf courses in driving range, so to speak, for afternoon tee. Thankfully, the castle has stuck to what it does best, afternoon tea. Sleek and new golf courses: once the delight of the Irish economy; now the bane of the Irish demesne. The early 17th century siege wall of a fortress built by the McDonaghs was uncovered in the basement during restoration work. But the sash windows of the basement hold more of a clue to the current building’s true origins. Hard as it is to believe, Markree is or rather was a five bay 18th century house with a three bay breakfront façade and one bay on either side of a garden front bow. So far, so Georgian. That’s till Francis Johnston came on the scene. Joshua Cooper commissioned the architect of Charleville Forest and Killeen Castle to engulf and transform the house into a castle of the early medieval revival symmetrical kind. Not content, in 1866 his son Edward Cooper employed the Edinburgh architect James Maitland Wardrop to continue the transformation, dropping a consonant from gothick to gothic in the process. Wardrop’s output includes the Jacobaronial Kinnordy Castle and Lochinch Castle, part Balmoral part Glamis (drop the second vowel to pronounce correctly).
The result? An encyclopaedic use of castellation, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Archivolts; bartizans; batement windows (no that’s not a typo); batters; colonettes; conical roofs; crenellations; flying buttresses and octahedral roofs (witch’s hat type, keep up); foiled quarters; battlemented servants’ quarters; machiolation; parapets; skew tables (no not sure either); six minarets crowning the billiard room, demarking a mecca of pleasure; strapwork; tracery; transoms and mullions; vaults and voussoirs. An encyclopaedic mind is required to imbue these words with meaning. Back to the late and last Knight of Glin who, ever wearing his erudition lightly, inn quotable resonant lucidity observed in his latter years, “Markree Castle, an 18th century house transformed into a castle, leaves in no doubt the competence, richness and variety of Irish country house architecture as a whole.”
It may have taken a medley of architects, but oh boy, is the approach to the inner sanctums of the castle processional. Little wonder W B Yeats considered Markree regal. A sumptuous sequence of artistic compositions begins with the grand sweep of the staircase, tipping the ground at basement level before rising in steep ascent to the piano nobile. The double height staircase hall leads to a small hallway on one level. To one side, a cast iron radiator has been recast as a sarcophagus. This accordion-like alternating suppression and expansion of space heightens (yes pun) the sense of ancestral occasion, frozen music, a monument of its own magnificence. Tahdah! Into the double height staircase hall. Things simply can’t get any more exciting, can they? Oh yes – the triple height galleried hall. Francis Johnston at his hammerbeam roofed best. Each generation made their mark on Markree and, unabashed by eclecticism, untroubled by budget, unhindered by neighbours, unperturbed by vacillation, the twinned fruity Corinthian columns and compartmentalised ceiling of the adjoining cushioned sitting room render it neoclassical. Great rooms, beautiful lofty things, where travelled men, women and little childer find content or joy in excited reverie.
The dining room is a suite of three spaces good enough for Grace of Monaco to wander through. Calm hues of hammered gold, fleshy pink, off white and pale duck egg blue do little to dampen the Continental exuberance of the gold enamelled and mirrored interior installed by Edward Cooper in the 1830s. The result? An encyclopaedic use of applied decoration, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Acanthus leaves; beading; borders; bows; cornicing; coronets; crowns; egg and dart; festoons; flowers; friezes; fruit; heraldry; masks; mouldings; panels; pilasters; plaques; well fed putti – angels in the architecture; ribbons; rosettes; scrolls; shields; swags; tails; wreaths and reeds. Time for dinner amidst the surrounds of this visual feast. Courgette, mushroom and garlic amuse bouche. Whiskey bread. Ardsalagh goats’ cheese mousse with beetroot textures and lemon basil pesto. Buttermilk onion rings, always onion rings. Cockles from the sands of Lissadell, buttered samphire, cauliflower purée and sauce vierge. Pistachio (flavour of the moment) and olive oil cake, roasted strawberries and rhubarb sorbet. It’s a riot of colour and taste, Jackson Pollock in an Irish country garden.
Double doors sliding into the thickness of the dividing walls in the dining room are panelled like geometric jigsaws. Circles and squares, quadrant pieces and segmental cutouts. Jib doors allow the dado rail to continue uninterrupted. The French doors open onto an external staircase leading down to two acres of formal gardens rich in memory glorified, silent in the breathless starlit air. The staircase was the last addition to Markree and it sure did go out with a bang. It firmly belongs to the Belfast Castle outdoor staircase school of “more is more”. A piece of architecture itself, a central bay containing an unglazed Tudorbethan window is looped in the loops as they turn and turn in wildering whirls. Dartboard windows flank each side of the staircase at basement level.
In Ephemera W B Yeats ponders, “‘Ah do not mourn,’ he said; ‘That we are tired, for other loves await us; hate on and love through unrepining hours. Before us lies eternity; our souls are love, and a continual farewell.’” Markree, now old and grey, exudes an air of permanence in an ephemeral age. Centuries of building, from castle to house to castle to hotel, have merged into authenticity, melded by the patina of age: one form hewn from rock, one colour, one character, one craft, oneness. (1) The staircase hall remains just that. (2) Sinéad O’Connor (Sinéad O’Connor is the new Sinéad O’Connor) can still be taken to church in the traditional sanctity of the velvet curtained chapel. (3) The kitchen has been promoted to adjoin the new dining room. (4) The dining room rebranded the Knockmuldowney Restaurant was the drawing room. (5) The library stocks fewer books as the sitting room. (6) The same ghosts peer over the galleried hall to the family portraits below. (7) Drinks continue to be served in the sitting room now it’s a bar. And don’t forget the porte cochère, still there, it’s found a humbler use as a smoking room. These days it’s more upper case Regal. At the extremity of the garden front, just before the lowest wing tapers into the garden wall, a gothic arched outbuilding is now the stately home of two cats.
All 32 bedrooms are decorated in vibrant shades and furnished with dark Victorian pieces – such antique joy. The six largest are individually named. On the second floor, The Mrs Alexander Room is 370 square feet, the size of a one bedroom flat in London. It would give Temple House’s Half Acre Bedroom a run for its money. Also on the second floor, The Charles Kingsley Room has two great windows open to the south. The second floor W B Yeats Room is a hexagonal shape, pushing into the garden front bow window. Further along the garden front second floor corridor is The Bryan Cooper Room. On the first floor, The Coronet Cooper Room over the bar has a rectangular bay window and is accessed via its own serpentine stairs sliced through the thickness of the internal wall. The Johnny Cash Room (the singer stayed here in the 1990s) over the dining room is semicircular shaped. It too has its own stairs sliced through the wall.
An illuminated address presented by the tenants of Markree to Charles Cooper’s great uncle when he attained his majority hangs in the bar. It harks back to a more hat tugging, reverential era, reflecting a social order recognisable to Mrs Alexander: “Address and presentation to Edward Francis P Cooper Esq, Markree Castle, 1933. We the undersigned employees on your estate beg your acceptance of our best congratulations on the attainment of your majority and we wish you long and happy enjoyment of the position you now occupy as owner of the Markree property. We are all aware of the interest you take in Markree, and as most of us experienced very great kindness at the hand of your late father Major B R Cooper, than whom no better employer could be. We have every confidence in thinking that you will be equally good and feel that it will be a similar pleasure to serve you. We take this opportunity of expressing our deep appreciation of the many acts of kindness that we have already received from yourself and every member of your family. In commemoration of this occasion and a slight token of our feelings, we trust you will accept this small gift that we now offer with our best wishes for your welfare in the future, at the same time hoping you will be long spared to spend many happy days at Markree.” In September 2014, Markree Castle was advertised for sale in Country Life for sale for €3,125,000.