Roscrea confronts `disgrace' of Damer House
A bacon factory or a swimming pool - these were two of the more outlandish ideas for the site of Damer House, an imposing Queen Anne townhouse built in the early 18th century in Roscrea.
Damer House is in the grounds of the 13th-century St John's Castle, situated in the heart of the town.
Although the castle is being restored by Duchas, the State heritage service, which now manages most of the site, the house is in poor repair. A local newspaper recently carried the headline, "Damer House is a disgrace".
"Damer House is in bad shape," says Mr John Lupton, an accountant involved in a number of local ventures (he is the founder chairman of Roscrea Community Development Council and chairman of Roscrea Community and Tourism Leisure Centre).
"People in Roscrea would like to see an investment in Damer House that would benefit the local community." Damer House is owned by Tipperary County Council and held on a long-term lease by the Roscrea Heritage Society (RHS).
Negotiations are being held to pass the lease on to Duchas. "We can't start work on Damer House until we have some title to the house," says a spokesman for Duchas. "Even so, we have already undertaken some remedial repairs to the roof."
Mr George Cunningham and Mr Des Walsh, president and chairman respectively of the RHS, escort me into the courtyard of the castle complex, at the centre of which is the many-windowed facade of Damer House.
At first glance all seems well, although on closer inspection, the lintels are sagging. Inside there is a fine staircase, one of only two such Queen Anne staircases in the State (the other is in Cashel Palace). "The Georgian Society restored the staircase in 1980," says Mr Cunningham, a retired teacher and local historian. "It cost £10,000 and they removed over 30 lb of paint."
However, the house is cold and rather dingy. There is a smell of damp. There are patches of damp on the walls and ceilings, a back door in the annexe has rotted through, and, Mr Cunningham admits, "the electrics have not been properly dealt with". The roof is leaking and there is also water coming in from the guttering: "The roof has a central valley and the water tends to pile up if this is blocked," adds Mr Walsh, a local businessman.
There are several exhibitions on view. The Kelly Collection features farmhouse implements dating from the 1920s. The Monastic Midlands exhibition includes a replica of the Book of Kells, donated by a local businessman, and a replica of the 8thcentury Book of Dimma, from Roscrea. There is also an exhibition of lace. These three exhibitions have been on view since the mid-1980s. Damer House also hosts travelling exhibitions, such as a recent one from the RIAI, and in early summer will be the location for "Eurena '98", the European Information and Exhibition Centre.
The National Gallery and National Museum had paintings and artefacts on loan at Damer House, but these, notes Mr Cunningham, were withdrawn: "The official story was that Roscrea did not have a professional curator."
But, says Mr Cunningham, all these drawbacks are relative: "In the late 1960s, the county council was planning to demolish Damer House and put in a swimming pool. Ireland was a different place then. There was not the awareness or concern there is now about old buildings."
After "years of controversy", the Georgian Society leased the house in 1973. Together with the local people (who eventually founded the Roscrea Heritage Society) some restoration work was carried out. Between 1980 and 1983, the annexe was restored and opened to the public as a heritage centre. It won the European Museum of the Year Award and the Irish Museums Trust Award.
At that stage the Georgian Society handed over Damer House to the RHS. "Dry rot was still rife, and wet rot. The basement was flooded," Mr Cunningham recalls. Restoration continued, helped along by funds from Bord Failte, and in 1989 GPA donated £100,000. In that year the OPW (now Duchas) began work on restoring the castle complex (so far, £1.3 million has been spent).
Mr Lupton believes that the castle complex represents "the most important tourism product we have in Roscrea" and compliments the RHS (of which he is a member) on its "trojan development work". "It was the Heritage Society that convinced the OPW to invest in restoration. But Damer House needs additional investment. The community will not get a return unless the project is completed."
The Duchas spokesman responds: "Work will be done to Damer House as resources permit. Essential work would be a priority, as with any properties we have." As for Mr Lupton's fear that the community would not be involved in decisions about the house: "We regularly consult with the RHS with regard to managing the complex. This is in everyone's best interests."
The lease that is now being negotiated involves the establishment of a liaison committee between Duchas and the RHS, notes Mr Walsh.
Mr Lupton would still like to see some evidence that Damer House will be developed as an important tourism resource in the town, but the spokesman for Duchas replies: "Tourism is not our concern. We are a conservation agency."
Meanwhile, RHS members would like to see better access for the people of Roscrea to the castle complex: "The Georgian gardens at the back of Damer House are free to the people of the town," says Mr Lupton, "but few local people go in." This is partly because access to the complex is restricted to entrance through the drawbridge, which is up some wooden steps. "It looks intimidating and is difficult for elderly people to negotiate," says Mr Walsh.
"This year the RHS has convinced Duchas to leave the gates open," says Mr Lupton. "The local feeling, that still persists, of the absentee landlord, has to be overcome."
Damer House has had several incarnations. It was built by the Damer family in 1720 and was lived in privately until 1800. It then became a barracks, which means that today it does not feature much in the way of ornamentation. During this century it has been a technical school and a library.
Mr Cunningham concludes: "We have few townhouses of this quality in Ireland, especially in the middle of a town, and especially in the middle of a 13thcentury castle. When I was growing up in Roscrea, it was called the barracks, the windows were broken, and nobody really noticed it. We have now created an awareness of the place. During the last 30 years we've never had enough money to bring it to the necessary standard of repair. It has been a holding operation. We want to get Damer House up and running."
Damer House is open every weekend. From May to September it is open every day.