Back from brink thanks to banker's bonus

The hugely ambitious restoration of Killua Castle in Co Westmeath is a worthy entry onto the shortlist for this year’s Irish …

The hugely ambitious restoration of Killua Castle in Co Westmeath is a worthy entry onto the shortlist for this year's Irish Georgian Society conservation award - writes FRANK McDONALD,Environment Editor

SWISS BANKER Allen Krause is doing something ususually heroic with his annual bonus – investing it in the restoration of a once-rooofless castellated mansion near Clonmellon, Co Westmeath. Indeed, if it wasn’t for him and his bursts of money, Killua Castle would still be a quite romantic ruin.

Built for the Chapmans in the late 18th century, Killua was turned into a much larger turretted castle in the 1830s, probably by architect James Shiel. By the time Krause became captivated by it six years ago, it had long been a roofless shell, standing on just three acres of land.

In fact, it was a dangerous building. Limerick-based conservation architect Matthew Shinnors faced a truly daunting task that would have defied the faint-hearted. As if by some miracle, the castle has since been roofed, its walls rebuilt and new concrete floors inserted – not just for their utility value, but also to assist in stabilising the structure.

Adjudicators for the Irish Georgian Society’s conservation award (myself included) were enormously impressed by what has been achieved so far at Killua – even though so much still remains to be done. The only windows are in a Victorian wing; elsewhere, corrugated plastic sheeting keeps out wind and rain.

As fellow adjudicator Dr Edward McParland noted in his citation, the approach being taken by Shinnors is “careful, ambitious and informed”. And even though it may take 10 years or more to fully restore Killua, we all felt that a high commendation was merited for the sheer bravery of this extraordinary project.

Less impressive was another shortlisted entry, Rockfield House, near Kells, Co Meath. Nine bays wide with a three-bay loggia, this early 19th-century mansion looks the part, but is let down by its peculiar layout, which essentially consists of rooms off corridors on three levels. The courtyard is more charming.

Architect Una Ní Mhearáin, of Consarc Conservation, oversaw repairs to the house, which included applying new lime render and undoing some earlier unfortunate alterations – for example, replacing PVC windows with new timber ones similar to the originals. Internally, the decoration is quite eccentric.

We gave the award to St Malachy’s Church in Belfast, designed by Thomas Jackson and built between 1840 and 1844. It is the most unusual Catholic church in Ireland, much wider than it is long and with a gallery around three sides; apparently, the original plan was for a nave extending halfway down the street in front.

Described by Charlie Brett as “the finest late-Georgian building in Belfast”, St Malachy’s needed significant work. Under the supervision of architect Bronagh Lynch, of Consarc Conservation, its Tudor Revival turrets were rebuilt, a new sacristy tucked in at the rear, a wheelchair ramp added and the interior redecorated.

As the citation says, “external work was extensive but unobtrusive, and indoors much of the glory of the original paint scheme was brought back”. Craftsmen from far afield were employed on the project, and replacement materials carefully chosen. Its Gothic ceiling, previously painted pink, is a particular joy to behold.

We also went to Antrim to see the former Court House (1726), which now houses a café, tourist information office and a multi-purpose space upstairs that usually functions as a theatre. But the conversion fails to pay sufficient respect to surviving original features, notably an internal colonnade, now partly obscured.

Architect John O’Connell faced an equally tricky task when the Higgins family commissioned him to convert the former Congregational Chapel in Kilmainham, Dublin, into a home of distinction. Built about 1800, the chapel was originally a single-cell space, with three large round-headed windows in each of its longer sides.

Its conversion, which involved providing three bedrooms and three bathrooms, has been done with “exemplary tact”, according to the citation. “Decoration, fittings and finishes are reticent and – as the occasion demands – unapologetically modern, recycled or innovatively new, but in the spirit of c1800.”

Some sense of the chapel’s original proportions is retained in the large livingroom/kitchen, lit by four of the six round-headed windows. What impressed all of us was the readiness of the clients to undertake the enormously expensive job of restoring the windows, with their original crown glass; this alone cost €40,000.

The only other Dublin entry to make the shortlist was the Red Stables in St Anne’s Park, Raheny. Designed by George Ashlin for Lord Ardilaun and built with great extravagance, the stables now house artists’ studios and a café in a new glass-and-steel extension at first-floor level. It was all a bit shabby though.

Our final visit was to Ardagh, Co Longford, to view the restored Fetherston Memorial – a gothic clocktower that’s been the focal point of this picturesque estate village since 1862. Conserved by architect John Greene, it still leaks, however – a measure of the ferocity of rain driven by prevailing westerly winds.

“Ardagh has a distinguished record in the Tidy Towns Competition, and this latest example of civic pride and initiative deserves commendation as a lesson – still to be learned by many – of how a small group of people, spending very little money in careful and informed ways, can improve the quality of a village . . . It is this spirit which, in various forms from vast country house to tiny village monument, this competition organised by the Irish Georgian Society, seeks to honour,” wrote Dr McParland. “What we were ultimately judging were not architects, not craftsmen, not owners, but the buildings themselves.”

Two conservation projects submitted by the Irish Landmark Trust -- the gate lodge at Colebrooke, Co Fermanagh, and a mews in Merrion Square that provides both an apartment for short-term letting and stables for the Garda horses -- unfortunately had to be excluded because Dr McParland is one of its directors.

We were unanimous in agreeing to award the prize for drawing to Fergal MacCabe for his elevation of the south front of Dublin Castle – minus the castellated garden wall that partly obscures it from view. Fastidious to a fault, it showed that the ancient art of architectural drawing survives, even in this computer-driven age.

The awards and commendations for other projects were presented in Dublin last night by the society’s president, Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin. Other adjudicators were David Griffin, director of the Irish Architectural Archive, and Frank McCloskey, director of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects.

The project we’ll remember most is Killua Castle. Assuming Allen Krause continues to earn his bonuses, it will be fascinating to see this house fully restored. There’s also a link with Lawrence of Arabia; TE Lawrence was the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman, 7th Baronet of Westmeath.