Exploring the little details of Ireland's big houses
STATELY HOMES:A new book documenting the social, political and architectural history of more than 20 rural houses and castles features many previously unpublished period photographs
INTERIOR ARCHITECT and author David Hicks had his interest in Irish country houses sparked when he began to trace his family roots. Hicks, who grew up in Co Mayo several generations after the land agitation of the late 19th century, says any historical family connections to grand houses of the county were often played down.
“It is difficult, because I feel in Mayo we don’t advertise certain past connections,” he says. “We were related to the Knox family and they owned a number of substantial houses and castles. My great-grandmother grew up in Rappa Castle. The castle is in ruins now and I used to live near it, so I began to look at the history behind it and find out what it might have looked like inside. I have no problem with this aspect of our family past, but my father’s generation would probably prefer to keep it to ourselves.”
Not only did Hicks successfully examine his own family past, but he turned his interest and passion into a new coffee-table-sized book, Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change, which features more than 20 Irish properties, from castles to large rural estates. The idea was to document their social, political and architectural history, with previously unpublished period photographs of some of the houses contrasted with contemporary images. So, for example, we get to see how renovations at Castle Freke in Rosscarbery, Co Cork, are coming along. Stephen Evans-Freke, a grand-nephew of the past owners, bought the castle for £360,000 in the late 1990s. Once he has consolidated the building and secured the exterior, he expects to begin work on the interior and save an important property, some of which dates back to the 15th century.
A less positive outcome relates to Mayfield House in Portlaw, Co Waterford, once owned by the Malcolmson family, who established a cotton mill in the area in 1825. The family extended an earlier house on the site, erecting a distinctive Italianate tower at the entrance. The house and surrounding mill would eventually become a leather tannery, and when that business closed in the 1980s, the impact on the house was significant and it was abandoned in the 1990s.
Since then, the rate of decline of this fine house has been swift, and photographs in the book taken by Ellie Ross contrast sadly with those sourced from the National Library depicting local dignitaries gathered at the house for a garden fete.
“The sad thing is that it was roofed and had a certain degree of interiors until 1994,” says Hicks. “This level of decline happened since then. We also publish pictures from 2003, when it still had a roof. There was a plan to turn it into apartments or a retirement village but it hasn’t happened.”