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the social, political and architectural history of more than 20 rural houses and castles features many previously unpublished period photographs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 The idea was to document their social, political and architectural history, with previously unpublished period photographs of some of the houses contrasted with contemporary images.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.”
Better-known houses feature also, such as Áras an Uachtaráin, which is highlighted through some interesting interior shots showing the journey of the house from an 18th-century lodge to its present status as residence of President Michael D Higgins.
“We took a look inside and saw how much the interior has changed,” says Hicks.
“I think what is most amusing about it is that it was formerly the viceregal lodge, giving it a very strong association with Britain in Ireland. By chance, it has survived, when many houses with strong British links were burned down. Not only that, but it has come to represent modern Ireland and has, if you like, two distinct faces.”
Other houses and castles to feature in the book include Killarney House in Co Kerry, Adare Manor in Co Limerick, Belleek Castle in Co Mayo, Powerscourt House in Co Wicklow, and Lough Eske Castle in Co Donegal. With each property, Hicks details how the house came to be built, where the owners got their money and, where relevant, how it passed out of family ownership.
“In some ways in Ireland we are too reverential towards ruins of buildings,” says Hicks. “Take Powerscourt in Wicklow, it has been restored to a degree and used as a commercial centre, but to my mind there is an issue of whether or not it is really functioning as a building.”
During his research on Charleville Forest Castle in Co Offaly, Hicks came in contact with the Beaverbrook Foundation in Canada. “It turns out they possess one of the original paintings from the castle. I put them in touch with the trustees and they are reproducing that painting to hang in the property. I was thrilled to help put something that has context with the building back in.”
Hicks says the book should appeal to anyone with an interest in history, photography, interior design and architecture. With the popularity of television shows such as Downton Abbey, there should also be interest in the people who owned and worked in these properties, who are well documented in the book.
While past generations may still struggle with the legacy of some Irish country houses, Hicks feels there is now a widespread interest in and respect for houses of architectural and cultural merit.
“When I was researching Clonbrock House in Galway, I watched a 1976 television documentary on the auction of contents from the house and people were almost saying good riddance and that kind of thing. No one seemed sorry to see the end. Today, I think when people look at a book like this, they are nostalgic and realise what riches we have lost over the years.”