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Killeavy Castle Hotel + St Luke’s Church Meigh Armagh

A Major Retrospective

Mark Bence-Jones’ tome A Guide to Irish Country Houses, 1978, unusually misses out Killeavy Castle. Its architect George Papworth (1781 to 1855) moved from London to work in Dublin. There’s an entry for another of his works, Middleton Park in Mullingar, County Westmeath: “A mansion of circa 1850 in the late Georgian style by George Papworth, built for George Augustus Boyd. Two storey six bay centre block with single storey one bay wings; entrance front with two bay central breakfront and single storey Ionic portico. Parapeted roof with modillion cornice; dies on parapets of wings. At one side of the front is a long low service range with an archway and a pedimented clocktower. Impressive stone staircase with elaborate cast iron balustrade of intertwined foliage. Sold circa 1958.”

Middleton Park is very well restored as a hotel; another of the architect’s houses is not. Kenure Park in Rush, County Dublin, is included in The Knight of Glin, David Griffin and Nicholas Robinson’s 1988 publication Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, “A large early to mid 18th century house altered circa 1770 when the two large drawing rooms were created. These rooms had magnificent rococo ceilings and carved doorcases, that on the ground floor having a superb Doric chimneypiece. The house was altered and enlarged again in 1842 for Sir Roger Palmer Baronet, to the design of George Papworth. Papworth refaced the house and added the granite Corinthian portico. He also created the entrance hall, the library and the central top lit staircase hall. The house was sold in 1964 and became derelict before its demolition in 1978. Samples of the rococo ceiling were saved by the Office of Public Works. Only the portico remains.”

Nick Sheaff, the first Executive Director of the Irish Architectural Archive, recalls a visit to Kenure Park: “My first impression was of a mansion conceived on ducal scale in Greco Roman style. In reality it was a stucco refacing of a mid-18th-century three-storey house, skilfully realised by George Papworth in 1842 and fronted by his great Corinthian porte cochère of limestone. It had stylistic echoes of Nash’s work at Rockingham, County Roscommon, and the Morrisons’ work at Baronscourt, County Tyrone. Kenure had a remarkable interior, with two magnificent rococo ceilings of circa 1765 in the style of Robert West. The majestic top lit stairhall by George Papworth had a double-return staircase with a decorative cast-iron balustrade painted to resemble bronze, and walls marbled to suggest Sienna marble blocking as at Benjamin Dean Wyatt’s York House, St James’s in London (now Lancaster House), completed in 1840. When I visited Kenure in 1977 with Rory O’Donnell the house was derelict, open to the elements and to vandalism. It was demolished in 1978 with only the great porte cochère left standing. Kenure had contained some exceptional English furniture of the mid-18th-century, including pieces attributed to Thomas Chippendale, Pierre Langlois, and William and Richard Gomm.” A Chippendale cabinet, commissioned by Sir Roger Palmer for Castle Lackan in County Mayo, and formerly at Kenure Park, was sold at Christie’s in 2008 for £2,729,250.

George Papworth, typical of his era, was able to fluently design in a multiplicity of styles, from the neoclassicism of Middleton Park and Kenure Park to the Tudor Gothic medieval castellated Killeavy Castle. The latter’s setting is majestic, backing into the hillside of the Slieve Gullion and commanding a panorama across the green basin floor. The castle is now a wedding venue and forms the star in a galaxy of 140 hectares of forest, farm and formal gardens. It stands in isolated splendour rising over its battlemented apron of a terrace like a fairytale in granite. In line with best conservation practice, the ‘enabling development’ contemporary hotel and spa accommodation is kept away from the main house. No sprawling 20th century type extensions here. The Listed coach house and mill house were restored and five less important farm buildings demolished and replaced with newbuild around a courtyard roughly filling the original footprint. The mill fountain and pond form eyecatchers framed by the large single pane windows of the hotel. Owner Mick Boyle, locally born then raised in Australia, returned to his homeland and together with his wife Robin and four children took on the immense task of restoring and rejuvenating the castle and demesne. He explains,


“The environment around us inspires all that we do at Killeavy Castle Estate. Everything has a purpose. We put much thought into what we grow, buy, use and reuse. We’re restocking our woodland with native oak to restore habitat diversity. And creating forest trails to bring you closer to nature. We farm sustainably too. Traditional local breeds of Longhorn cattle and Cheviot sheep graze in our pastures. Whenever possible we use fresh ingredients foraged, grown or raised right here, in our fields, forests and extensive walled and estate gardens. We make our own jams, preserves and dried foods. We smoke, age and cure our own meat so that bounty can be savoured year round in our restaurants and farmshop. We support our community by sourcing 90 percent of what we serve and sell from within a 32 kilometre radius. Even the seaweed adorning Carlingford oysters ends up fertilising our strawberry plants. And slates have a second life as plates. We’re always finding inventive ways to meet our sustainable target goal of being carbon neutral by 2027.”

The Boyles’ architect was Patrick O’Hagan of Newry. In the planning application of 2014 (which would be approved a year later by Newry and Mourne District Council) he explained, “The Grade A castle will be repaired and fully restored adapting current conservation techniques and standards. Interventions to the Listed Building will be minimal. The works to the Listed Building will be under the direction of Chris McCollum Building Conservation Surveyor, working in conjunction with Patrick O’Hagan and Associates Architects, and other design team members. A 250 person detached marquee will be sensitively positioned to the rear of the castle, excavated into the hillside and suitably landscaped to ensure it does not detract from the setting of the Listed Building or the critical views from the Ballintemple Road.” A discreet wheelchair ramp to the entrance door is just about the only element Powell Foxall wouldn’t recognise. The entrance hall leads through to two formal reception rooms with further informal reception rooms now filling the basement. The first floor has a self contained apartment including a sitting room, dining kitchen and three bedroom suites.

Patrick O’Hagan continued, “The hotel will have its main entrance located in the Listed coach house and will be restored under the direction of the conservation surveyor working closely with the architect. The lean-to Listed structures and the old mill building will be restored and form part of the hotel accommodation. The design carefully maximises the benefits of the steeply sloping site, sloping to the east, which ensures that the new three story hotel building’s roof level is some six metres below the floor level of the castle. The flat roofs of the hotel will be appropriately landscaped to present a natural ‘forest floor’ when viewed from the castle and terrace above.”

And concluded, “The layout of the hotel provides important views to the castle, the restored walled garden and distant views of the surrounding demesne and beyond making travel in and around the hotel an experience in itself. The restaurant, lounge and kitchen areas are vertically stacked on the northern elevation but the public areas also address the internal courtyard providing a southerly aspect and natural solar gain. Views up to the castle from the restaurant and lounge areas are a critical element of the design and will ensure a unique ambience. The courtyard level bedrooms are externally accessed directly from the landscaped courtyard and internally via passenger lifts. The remaining bedrooms are designed with both courtyard and east elevation views.”

Sustainability was a theme of the construction as well as the ongoing running of the hotel. “A limited palette of materials is proposed in the new building work. The use of granite cladding and larch boarding reflects materials naturally occurring on the site. The larch boarding will be painted with a water based wood stain to emulate the great boughs of the adjacent ancient beech, lime and sycamore. The organic masonry water based paint colours will be selected to tone with the woodland setting. All construction materials will be 100 percent recyclable.” Sustainable operational features for the 45 bedroom hotel include a woodchip boiler harvesting waste timber from the demesne and collecting and reusing rainwater.

Kimmitt Dean records in The Gate Lodges of Ulster Gazetteer, 1994, “South Lodge circa 1837 architect probably George Papworth; demolished. A painting in the Armagh Museum indicates what was a contemporary and unassuming gatelodge at the end of a straight avenue on an axis with the front door of the ‘castle’.” Not content with simply restoring the castle, the Boyles commissioned Templepatrick based architects Warwick Stewart to dream up a suitably romantic replacement gatelodge. The result is a convincing neo Victorian country house in miniature faced in stone, dressed with cut granite, and dressed up with bargeboards. The gatelodge provides self contained guest accommodation of two bedrooms over a sitting room and dining kitchen.

Kevin Mulligan provides a detailed account of the castle in The Buildings of Ireland: South Ulster, 2013. Highlights include: “A delightful toy castle rising above a castellated terrace… remodelled in 1836 … In both architecture and picturesque effect the design recalls Charles Augustus Busby’s dramatic Gwrych Castle near Abergele in Wales … a lot has been achieved in a small compass: by the addition of an entrance tower, corner turrets, stringcourses, battlements, attenuated slits, flat label mouldings and mullioned windows, what was effectively a decent farmhouse has been impressively transformed … The tall narrow doorway is flanked by stepped buttresses, the door an ornate Gothic design bristling with studs and set under a Tudor arch and a machiolated bay window with three round lancets. The Foxall arms are displayed in Roman cement on the upper stage.” George Papworth’s client was Powell Foxall even though the Newry bank his family co founded, Moore McCann and Foxall, had folded two decades earlier.

And adds, “There is little dressed stonework in the design, and Papworth’s additions are distinguished from the rubble of the 18th century work by rough ashlar blocks – of limestone rather than the local granite – with wide uneven joints. On the side elevations, presumably as an economy, he concealed the old wall by replicating the newer pattern in stucco, using a composition render, as he had done at Headford (County Galway) in 1829.” Really it’s an attractive 1830s pre Gothic Revival version of Gothic.

Sir Charles Brett devotes four pages of Buildings of County Armagh, 1999, to Killeavy Castle. He’s clearly an admirer, “An exceedingly fine, deceptively modest, pre Victorian castle … a sort of scaled down version of Gosford Castle … The crenellations are marvellously convincing, as are the splendid mock medieval studded front door (painted green) and the astonishingly tall and narrow slit windows … George Papworth was the younger brother, and pupil, of the better known English architect John Buonarotti Papworth, son of a notable stuccodore. He established a successful practice in Ireland, and designed Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital in Ireland, and the King’s Bridge over the Liffey, in Dublin. His drawings for Killeavy were exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1836, with the comment ‘now erecting’.”

The castle started life as an 18th century two storey over basement villa of the rectory size, with a three bay entrance front and a bow window in the centre of the rear elevation. George Papworth mostly retained the symmetry and plan, adding a square tower to each corner except for a circular tower to the rear northwest corner which rises an extra storey. A bathroom now occupies the top floor of the tallest tower. Charmingly, the Gothic carapace cracks on the rear elevation to reveal glimpses of the earlier house. Less charmingly, well for the Foxalls anyway, this was probably down to that age old issue of running low on funds. Earlier sash windows still light the bowed projection.

It’s hard to imagine the perilous state of Killeavy Castle until the Boyles came to its rescue. Imagination turns to reality in a lobby of the hotel: a gallery of photographs shows the ruins. St Luke’s Church of Ireland in the local village, Meigh, hasn’t been so lucky. At first glance it could be mistaken for another George Papworth commission, an offshoot of the castle. But Kevin Mulligan confirms that it is an 1831 design by the prolific Dublin based architect William Farrell. “A variation of the design for the churches of Clontribret and Munterconnaught. A small three bay hall with Farrell’s familiar pinaccled belfry and deep battlemented porch. The walls are roughcast with dressings of Mourne granite, nicely displayed in the solid pinnacle topped buttresses framing the entrance gable and porch. The windows are plain lancets with hoodmoulds, made impossibly slender on either side of the porch. Inside, the roof is supported on exposed cast iron trusses.”

Those trusses now compete for space with trees growing up the aisle. “The roof of the Protestant church in Meigh was only removed 15 years ago,” says Derek Johnston, landlord of Johnny Murphy’s pub and restaurant in the village. A trefoil arched plaque set in a high pedimented gravestone reads: “In loving memory of William Bell who died on 10 March 1896 aged 75 years. Margaret Bell wife of above who died 2 November 2016. Dr Margaret Boyd who died 21 August 1906. Joseph Priestly Bell who died 24 August 2013. John Alexander Bell who died 15 November 1928. Elizabeth Anne Bell who died 27 May 1951. John Alexander Bell who died 1 July 1957. George Reginald Bell who died 16 July 1957. George Reginald Bell who died 16 July 1972. Henry Wheelan Bell who died 30 October 1973. Phyllis Maureen Bell died 7 July 2000.” Their ancestor, Joseph Bell, had bought Killeavy Castle in 1881. Phyllis Maureen Bell was the last of the line to own the castle.

Charlie Brett had big concerns yet high hopes for Killeavy Castle, “It is now, alas, empty, and in poor order, the victim both of vandalism and of burglary, though many interior features appear to survive – including even some of the original wallpaper … It richly deserves its classification as one of only a handful of buildings in Category A in the county … Dare one hope that happier days may come, and that this delightful building might, in some shape, become a showpiece of the Ring of Gullion?” Happier days are here, and this delightful building has, now in shipshape, become a showpiece of the Ring of Gullion.

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Ballyshannon Donegal +

Sights and Thoughts

In England, thanks to Pall Mall the noun “mall” (rhymes with “Al”) conjures up images of grand boulevards lined with majestic buildings. In America, it’s an out of town covered shopping centre (rhymes with “all”). In Ireland, it’s something else altogether. While alumni of University of Ulster may remember The Mall as being the wide corridor linking the main lecture theatres of the Jordanstown campus, it is more recognisable as a street name in town centres.

The Mall in Ballyshannon is definitely at the lower key end of the Irish variety. It begins to the west of Upper Main Street with a variety of late 18th century and early 19th century townhouses and, passing Mall Quay, gradually peters out further to the west into a semirural lane looping round the Erne Estuary.  Parallel with The Mall to the north is the even more informal Back Mall. The arched laneway abutting Dorrians Imperial Hotel at the most easterly end of Back Mall is a nerve wrecking few millimetres wider than the average car.

Clinging to the edge of the island of Ireland, Ballyshannon is steeped in history. The name comes from Béal Átha Seanaidh meaning “The Mouth of Seannach’s Ford”. Seannach was a 5th century warrior. The town’s existence was formalised by Royal Charter in 1613 but archaeological digs have revealed it dates back thousands of years. In 1423, Niall Garbh O Domhnaill Chieftain of the O’Donnell Clan built a castle in the settlement, long demolished. Ballyshannon was the scene of a siege and defeat of the Crown forces by Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1597. It was created a Borough by Royal Charter in 1613. Ballyshannon was the birthplace in the 18th century of politician William Connolly; Elizabeth Dixon, Mary Shelley’s grandmother; and Mathilda Thornley Blake, Bram Stoker’s mother. So two links to gothic horrors: Frankenstein and Dracula.

The town is built on a hill rising up from the north bank of the River Erne. A smaller portion of the town lies to the south of the river including a series of distinguished villas backing onto the Erne Estuary. The oldest surviving building is the long low former Barracks dating from 1700. This is a well disguised (being converted into miscellaneous shops) relic of a colonial past. Main Street splits into Upper Main Street and Castle Street to form a loop round the town centre.

One of the most prominent buildings in Ballyshannon, highly visible in long distance views of the town, is the former bank with a clock and bell tower on Main Street. It reaches the equivalent of eight storeys in height: a skyscraper in relative terms for County Donegal. Scottish baronial crow step gables – a little bit of the Highlands on the Wild Atlantic Way – add more drama to its silhouette. Opened in 1878, the building is constructed of rubblestone with cut ashlar details. A single storey wing in a surprisingly neoclassical vein fronts Castle Street. Paired Corinthian columns in front of corresponding pilasters frame entrance doors and support a pediment flanked by an arch headed window on one side and an archway on the other.

The café Tête à Tête on The Diamond in the lower end of the town centre serves the best halloumi and sourdough in the northwest. Chef Guillaume Lamandais and his wife Iwona bring a little bit of Brittainy to the Wild Atlantic Way. At the upper end of the town centre, straddling the hilltop, is Abbey Arts Centre which houses a film club. Upcoming attractions are Arracht directed by Tomás Ó Súilleabháin (the 1845 Great Hunger of Ireland); Redemption of a Rogue by Philip Doherty (a modern Irish take on the prodigal son story); and English director Ben Sharrock’s Limbo (a fictional Syrian musician on a Scottish island awaiting an asylum claim).

When it comes to ecclesiastical buildings Ballyshannon doesn’t do wallflower architecture. This is the bold and proud northwest. It is a strategic location in south Donegal close to Counties Fermanagh and Leitrim and in more recent times the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Church of Ireland is spectacularly positioned to the west of Main Street high above Erne Estuary with far reaching views of Tullan Strand to the west and Ben Bulben Mountain in County Sligo to the southwest. The former Presbyterian Church, now vacant, is lower lying on The Mall. To the east of Main Street, St Patrick’s Catholic Church looks down on the town. All of them grey in hue, St Patrick’s wins the award for architecture as topography. Surely it was hewed and chiselled not designed and built.

Alistair Rowan writes about all the churches in his 1979 Buildings of Ireland: Northwest Ulster, sponsored by Lord Dunleath’s Charitable Trust. “St Anne, Kilbarron Parish Church (Church of Ireland). 18th century, rebuilt in 1841 ‘in the Saxon style of architecture’ by the Reverend Tredennick to designs of William Farrell. A big five bay two storey hall with a high roof that dwarfs the west tower to which it is attached. This is probably a remnant of the old church of 1745… Farrell’s church is in ashlar sandstone with the windows recessed between flat strips of masonry, a sort of economical Norman originated by Smirke.” The church isn’t dissimilar from William Farrell’s Church of Ireland in Pettigo of three years earlier.

St Patrick. A long stone church set sideways to the ridge of the hill. Primitive Norman detailing. Seven bay two storey. In the middle of the north side is a big square tower and spire, inscribed ‘Dan Campbell, Builder, 1842’. J J McCarthy added the polygonal chancel in 1860.” And finally, “Presbyterian Church. Jumbled Nonconformist Gothic. A three bay hall in stone with Y traceried windows, built for Dr James Murphy about 1840, and extended in a T plan at its west end.”

Camlin Tower is a distractingly striking landmark on a bend on the Belleek road just outside Ballyshannon. It is a battlemented gate tower attached to a grand gated archway which opens onto a lane leading to… a derelict cottage, a barn and a field full of shire horses. Camlin was once the seat of the Trendennick family from Bodwin, Cornwall; they bought the estate from William Connolly in circa 1718. The big house was rebuilt in 1838 to the design of John Benjamin Keane. It was a two storey five bay Tudor Gothic building similar to the same architect’s Castle Irvine in County Fermanagh. The estate was sold to the Land Commission at the turn of last century. The house was erroneously demolished as part of the mid 20th century Ballyshannon Hydroelectric Scheme works. It was thought the house would be submerged by the new reservoir but the water level never did reach the ruins.