Thursday, 21 September 2017

Ballinafad House
Belcarra, Co. Mayo


Ballinafad House, found near Belcara outside Castlebar in Co Mayo, may look to the causal observer like a country house that has seen better days however be advised that in this instance to never judge a book by its cover. The interior is a hive of activity since the arrival of Bede Tannock from Australia who is tackling this challenging restoration. The list of work is awe inspiring while the quantities involved are staggering, 70,000 square feet of floor space, 340 sash windows, 110 rooms and surely a couple of acres of roof. Some people may think that the purchase price of €80,000 is a bargain, for this large house that sits on 8 acres, however it will take many multiples of the purchase price to restore this building and make it pay its way. Ballinafad House was once home to the Blake family but was donated by Llewellyn Blake, to the Society of African Missions in the early 1900's. This generous gift was given in the belief that it would atone for the sins of Blake's ancestors. Llewellyn believed that religious ceremonies conducted in memory of his dead relatives would rescue them from purgatory and admonish them of their past sins. However as you will see from reading the following paragraphs, Llewellyn did not seem to notice the living purgatory that his own tenants endured on his Mayo estate. Llewellyn's endowment of the Society of African Missions in 1916 was the equivalent of a donation in today's terms of nearly €6.5 million. Also the establishment of the Society of African Missions at Ballianfad was not met with universal welcome,  both the tenants of the estate and Llewellyn's relatives were actively hostile to the very idea.


The original Ballinafad House sits between two wings that were added
 to the house in the 1940's & 1950's. From this viewpoint  the claim that
 the house possesses the widest chimney in Ireland appear to be well founded.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Ballinafad House was built in 1827 by Maurice Blake but over the years has been enveloped by the ancillary buildings of the seminary and college it became after being donated in 1908. Ballinafad was the home of the Blakes, who were also connected with the Blakes of nearby Towerhill House but also connected by marriage to the Moores of Moore Hall. The interior of the original section of Ballinafad is important as many surrounding country houses are lying in ruins or no longer exist. When in the drawing room of Ballinafad, one can imagine that possibly it bore some resemblance to the nearby, but lost, interiors of Moore Hall, Towerhill or Clogher House. Prior to it being extended in the 1940's, Ballinafad House was a two storey over part raised basement house with 28 rooms. Sitting atop the roof is an impressive chimney that serves 26 fireplaces and possibly lays claim to being the widest domestic chimney in the country. The structural supports for the chimney dominate the layout of the house, beginning with a series of vaulted ceilings in the basement which support arches on the ground and first floor that in turn support the large chimney above. The support structure for this mammoth chimney essentially divides the house in two halves. The series of rooms to the rear of the house are separated from the main reception rooms at the front of the house by an elongated spine corridor that traverses the centre of the building. The entrance to the house is via a pair of sweeping curved stone steps that lead to an entrance porch, supported on an arch. A decedent of the Blake’s, Maurice Moore,  whose mother was born and raised at Ballinafad, was of the belief that his grandfather, who had added the porch to the house, was inspired by ‘an imperfect memory of one he had seen in Italy.


The entrance porch to Ballinafad with its curved 
sweeping steps was said to have been inspired
by an Italian counterpart 
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
The Moore's of Moore Hall, as I have previously mentioned, were connected with the Blake Family of Ballinafad through marriage. In 1851, George Henry Moore, of nearby Moore Hall married Mary Blake, the 23 year old daughter of Maurice Blake of Ballinafad House. Mary was one of ten children of Maurice and Anne Blake and upon her marriage to Moore was bestowed with a dowry of £4,000 which enriched the Moore Estate (This would be the equivalent of over €5 million in today's terms). Mary would name her second son Maurice after her father with the first born son, and heir of Moore Hall Estate, was given the name George. George Moore, who became a famous literary figure, would later write about Ballinafad describing it as ‘a county house, surrounded by a large park with a little quick running river close by’ and that 'ancestors had lived in Ballinafad for many generations; the obstinate Blakes they were called…’ Based on this statement, it would appear that there was possibly an earlier house on the site, when George Moore speaks of the family living there for generations. In December of 1851, Maurice Blake of Ballinafad died after a long illness and his remains lay in Ballinafad until removed for burial to Cloughballymore in Galway. The reason for Maurice's burial in Galway is that he had married the daughter and heiress of Marcus Lynch. Therefore the large Lynch Estate at Cloughballymore, Co. Galway eventually passed in to the Blake family. As Maurice had made a wise dynastic match with the Lynch family, his daughters would also marry in to other landed families. In 1854, Catherine married into the O'Connors of Elphin, Rosscommon , followed in 1858 when Julia married in to the Browne family and in 1859, when Victoria married in to the ffrench family.


LLewllyn Blake, son of Maurice Blake
who built Ballinafad in 1827

Initially it did not look as if Maurice's youngest son, Llewellyn Blake, would inherit his fathers estates as he had older brothers who would inherit before him. Llewellyn Blake was born in 1842 and in his lifetime gained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the 6th Battalion of the Connaught Rangers and held the office of High Sheriff of Galway in 1886. He also held the Office of Deputy Lieutenant for Country Mayo together with the Office of the Justice of the Peace for Counties Mayo and Galway. In 1869, Llewellyn was appointed to the Commission for Peace and was recommenced to the Lord Chancellor by the Marquis of Clanricarde. In August 1877 at St. Michael’s Church, Kingstown ( now Dun Laoghaire),  Dublin, Llewellyn Blake married Honoria Mary, the widow of William Murray (who died in 1874) of Northampton House in Country Galway. William Murray was a successful pawnbroker in Galway who moved to Kinvara and built Northampton House. In December 1877, Llewellyn Blake was living at 2 Willow Terrace, Blackrock, Dublin, we know this as he was advertising land for lease in Offaly and Kildare and mentions this as his address.


Further additions were added to the house over the 
years including the 'Priest's House' seen to the right
of the picture. 
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
In November 1891, Llewelyn’s wife, Honoria Mary Blake died aged only 41, strangely her death notice reports in great detail that she died from ‘congestion of the lungs’. She left an estate valued at £15,105 and she died at her home Northampton House, Kinvara, Co. Galway. Northampton House no longer exists, albeit for one wall, as the house was demolished in the 1930’s. Llewellyn and Honoria's marriage produced no children and as result this branch of the Blake family would die out with Llewellyn's death Llewellyn's brother, Mark Blake of Ballinafad died in June 1886 and his estates passed to his brother Joseph Blake. Joseph managed the Moore Hall estate  for his nephew George Moore after the death of his father, George Henry Moore. It was after the death of Joseph ( Gontran) Blake who died at Ballinafad in January 1893 that his estate valued at £12,581 passed to Llewellyn. As a result of these deaths in close succession, Llewellyn had inherited the estates and homes of his wife and brother so he was now a very wealthy man. At the time of the 1901 census, Llewellyn Blake aged 61 is living in Ballinafad House, it is noted that he was born in England and is a widower. Also present in the house is his 64 year old Land Stewart, Michael Cloran, together with two female servants Honoria Glynn aged 50 and Mary Mc Gurrin aged 40. 


The beautiful ceiling rose in the Entrance Hall
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
In January 1906, it was announced that the title of Count was conferred by the Pope on Llewellyn Blake of Cloughballymore, Galway and Ballinafad House, Mayo. This honour was conferred in recognition of Llewellyn's generosity towards the Society of African Missions based in Cork also known as the SMA. Llewellyn had also founded a scholarship at St. Jarlaith’s College in Tuam for the education of priests for the foreign missions. In 1906, it is recorded that Llewellyn held over 1,000 acres of untenanted land in Mayo and it appears that not everyone was happy about Llewelyn Blake’s donation to the African Missionary Society.  A letter to ‘The Western People’ in January 1906,  a tenant of the Blake estate wrote the following ‘ A couple of weeks ago reading on your paper that Colonel L. Blake of Ballinafad got a very high title from the Pope, we, his poor unfortunate tenants in the bogs of Ballinafad were in hopes that something would follow, and that as ‘Charity begins at home’ the gallant Colonel would think of his poor tenants and how to improve their lot. He has about fifty families living on 150 acres of bog.’ The author of the letter points out that he lives on three acres of bog while Llewellyn farms 950 acres of fine farmland. The tenant ends his letter saying that ‘ Many a fine good Irish boy and girl who left Ballinafad for the past twenty years would be glad to return if Shanroy, Lakemount, Cloonflyn, Castlelucan or Ballinafad grazing ranches were only divided up amongst the people at reasonable rents'.


One of the restored stained glass windows
in the chapel of Ballinafad, that commemorates
the work of the Society of African Missons.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
In January 1908, the Pope approved the establishment of a college for the education of priests for the African Mission at Ballinafad. The announcement indicated that the African Missionary Society, who had a college in Cork were about to take over Ballinafad House and demesne. Rev. Zimmerman from the Cork College had visited Ballinafad in early 1908 and was shown over the estate by Count Blake.  The dining room of Ballinafad was readied for Mass to celebrate a new beginning for the house.  The tenants on the estate reacted angrily to this news and they believed the donation to be part of a ploy to cheat them out the opportunity to buy their own land. While the tenants had no objection to the college being established, it was their belief that they were entitled to first consideration if any land of the estate was being disposed of.  When Father Zimmerman from the SMA, Count Blake and a land surveyor visited a nearby land holding, they were met by tenants who ‘booted them off the farm’.  It was the tenants hope that legislation would be introduced to ‘come to their aid in their struggle with the Count, who, in his zeal for the Africans sees fit to ignore the claims to simple justice which cry at his very door;’ The tenants protestations had the desired effect as it was announced in May of 1908 that all the tenanted land of the demesne had been offered for sale to the Estates Commission.


 The restored plaster work in one of the vaulted areas

found on either side of the main staircase.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

While his tenants were not impressed with the actions of the Count, his relatives were even less enamored. George Moore of nearby Moore Hall who was a nephew of Llewellyn made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the arrangements made for his mother’s former home. In fact George Moore could always be relied upon to present a less saintly representation of the Blake family. When describing his illustrious uncle, he said the following ‘ Llewelyn is a tall as his brother Mark, two or three inches over six feet, large in proportion, with sloping shoulders, snapping his words out and then relapsing into silence'. George also said that his uncle had ‘become uneasy about his soul. He was warned of its disease by me years ago, but he paid no heed to my warnings, and convinced of its continued existence, and that priests can help him to save it, he has founded a monastery.’ In 1914, George Moore wrote about his uncle Llewellyn whom he said ‘is my uncle and my mother’s youngest brother and he came into the property of Ballinafad on the death of Joe Blake……His brother, Mark, from whom he inherited Ballinafad, was a fine old country rake, leaving samples of his voice and demeanour and appearance in every village and then going to Dublin to repent of his sins….' It would appear according to George Moore that both Mark and Joe had indeed fathered children outside the confines of marriage as it is also recorded that they both died 'without lawful issue'. Was it these actions of his brothers that prayed on the mind of Llewellyn?, was his donation of all his property to religious orders, an act to ensure that his deceased brothers were rescued from purgatory?

The ceiling and cornicing of the Drawing Room in Ballinafad
Picture ( above and below)  Copyright ICHC


By the time of the 1911 census, Ballinafad House was now being used as Ballinafad College where a Rev. William Butler is listed as the head of the household and the owners of the property recorded as the South African Mission, Rev. Butler aged 30 from Kilkenny is a Professor of Latin and English, also present were John Corcoran aged 27, a Professor of Latin, History, French and Mathematics, William Cotter also aged 27, a Professor of Latin, Music, French and Mathematics together with Bartholomew Ronayre a Professor of Latin, English and Mathematics.  Johanna Cummins aged 63, from Tipperary, is listed as the Matron and Manageress while there are also two female servants, Mary Mc Gurrin and Bridget Joyce. Llewellyn at this time is living in Cloughballymore in Galway, the 4,000 acre estate and 19 room house which had been inherited from his mother's side of the family. On the night of the 1911 census he has two female visitors,  Mary and Kate Regan and also present in the house are three servants. Count Llewellyn Blake died on the 8th September 1916 at his Galway home Cloughballymore in Kilcolgan. His remains were removed from his residence to Ballinderreen Parish Church. His death certificate indicates that his death was sudden but that he suffered from heart disease. The certificate is witnessed by his house keeper, Norah Hughes who was with him when he died. The funeral mass involved nine clergy after which the remains were brought to Ardrahan train station and were conveyed to Cork for burial. At Wilton Church in Cork, High Mass was again celebrated and interment took place in the church grounds. In his will dated December 1907, he appointed as executors, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tuam and the Bishop of Cork together with the Rev. Joseph Zimmermann of the SMA.  Llewellyn left £1,500 to have Mass celebrated in churches and chapels in Ireland for the souls of his wife, mother, father, brothers and sisters. He left £50 to his Parish Priest in Galway to have additional masses said for deceased members of his family and £50 to help the local poor. He left £500 to the sisters of Charity in Dublin to assist in their foreign missions for the propagation of the Roman Catholic religion. After these deductions were made, the residue of his estate was to be divided in fifteen equal parts. Six fifteenths of his estate were to go to the new College of the Sacred Heart, founded by the Apostolic College for Foreign Missions in Ireland located at Ballinafad House. Two fifteenths were apportioned to the Roman Catholic Ecclesiastical Seminary in Limerick. Two fifteenths were allocated to All Hallows College, in Dublin, St. Joseph’s College in Wilton, Cork and St. Jarlaiths College, Tuam ,Galway.  Another condition of the will stipulated that each college should use the monies to enable poor students to train for the Priesthood, who could not afford to pay for their own education. One final fifteenth was to assist in the publication of Annals of the Propagation of the Roman Catholic Faith.


Details of the Drawing Room Ceiling.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 


Llewellyn left an estate with a value of £61,502.00 (of which £11,225 was in England), this would be roughly €6.5 million in today's money. The probate of his estate was granted to the Most Reverend John Healy, Archbishop of Tuam and the Most Reverend Daniel Coholan, Bishop of Cork. He left nothing to his relatives, so Maurice Moore and his sister Nina Kilkelly (Llewellyn's niece and nephew) made a petition to the Pope for a portion of their late uncle’s estate. The Pope agreed to release a donation of £2,000 to Mrs. Kilkelly and £1,000 to Maurice Moore which was paid in 1919. Maurice Moore had wanted to join with other members of the Blake Family to over turn his uncle’s will. He was annoyed that Ballinafad, his mother’s childhood home, was now passing out of the family to become a religious institution. His brother George on the other hand took offence at the way he felt his wealthy uncle had been pursued by members of the religious order. George believed that they had prayed on Llewellyn’s concern for the souls of his deceased ancestors and convinced him that by donating his wealth he could redeem them from purgatory. However George would not join with Maurice or support his petition for the overturning of the will, using Maurice's respect for his Catholic faith against him. This would not be the only time that Maurice would be disappointed by the last will and testament of a relative. When his brother, George Moore died in 1933, he left no provision for Maurice or his sons. At this stage Moore Hall had been burnt down a decade earlier and lay in ruins. Maurice had hoped to restore the house but his brother's will had prevented that. While Maurice had purchased the ruin of Moore Hall, he had no funds to implement a restoration. Perhaps if his Uncle Llewellyn had made provision in his will for his nephew, who bore the name of his father, Maurice may have been able to resurrect the home of the Moore’s on Muckloon Hill after its destruction.


One of the restored sash windows and shutters
in an area of the house that had been obliterated
by damp.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Llewellyn's nephews, George and Maurice Moore visited Ballinafad after the order had taken over. George walked around the drawing room and recalled the musical renditions performed here by his mother, her sisters and her brother. He noted at this time that ‘remembered pictures’ were still hanging on the walls. One wonders what became of the contents of the house as they appear to have been donated to the Order that took over Ballinafad. Also Llewellyn's other house, Cloughballymore in Galway, which also donated,  contained a number of family portraits still hanging on the walls years after the order acquired it. During his visit to Ballinafad, George spoke with one of the priests based there, who informed him that the first group of priests , dispatched on the missions from Ballinafad,  had found the African climate intolerable and that ‘large amount’ of these men had died. Whether George was being melodramatic or not, we do not know however the Priest did inform him that another group was leaving shortly for Africa and that he ' hoped not to lose so many’. However in a letter from George Moore to his brother Maurice dated August 1912, he says the following ‘I enclose some papers that I received this morning, and I think they will distress you. Apparently Llewelyn is going to settle an ecclesiastical establishment in Ballinafad unless he can be stopped. Will you please let me hear from you on the subject. Miss Gough says it is to be sold…’ This was followed by another letter dated September 1912 ‘I have heard no more from Tom Rutledge about the sale of the Property, Llewelyn Blake and Ballinafad, Has everything come to a standstill?’.


A beautifully restored window on the half
landing of the main staircase
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Ballinafad was initially a seminary after the SMA took over but then adopted the duel function of being a secondary boarding school. In 1948, a new staff residence, dormitory and dining facilities were built followed in 1955 by another block of classrooms and an assembly hall. It is noted that Ballinafad ‘never grew popular as a local school’ however up until the 1960’s in Ireland, secondary level education was for the favoured few. By 1960, Ballinafad had produced 400 priests and it was hoped by the time of the centenary of the establishment of the SMA at Ballinafad in 2016, they would have produced over 1,000 priests. In the 1960’s, the SMA built an Oratory together with basketball courts, tennis courts and handball alleys at Ballinafad. In 1966, the Vatican Council introduced changes in the approach for the training of priests and this coupled with the introduction of free education lead to a decline in the fortunes of Ballinafad. As the population of the area was too small, the outlay for providing facilities for boarders hadn’t been a success and the order could no longer meet the running costs. In 1975, it was announced that the Sacred Heart College established at Ballinafad would close. For a time a skeleton staff were kept on to maintain the place as no Government Department was interested in finding an alternative use for Ballinafad. The College was still in possession of a 470 acre farm around the main campus and it was local contention that the land should be divided amount local farmers upon its closure. However the complex was sold to Balla Mart who ran it as an Agricultural College for a number of years before it too closed. In the year 2000, Ballinafad House appeared on the market with a price tag of £2.5 million for the house with 400 acres, however a price of £500,000 could buy Ballinafad standing on 8 acres. In December 2002, at the height of the excesses of the Celtic Tiger it was reported that Ballinafad had been sold to Preston Homes who intended turning into a 5 star hotel however its appears that the recession killed this pipe dream. By 2010, Ballinafad was back on the market with a price of €499,000 for the college buildings but at this stage Ireland was in the midst of a recession so there were no takers.


The Dining Room of  Ballinafad which shows
the condition in which the new owner found most
of the house after he purchased it. This room will be
subject of the next phase of works.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
The buildings saviour came in the form of a young Australian, Bede Tannock,  who first viewed the building in 2012. He later purchased the house on 8 acres for €80,000 however but after decades of being abandoned, the phrase ‘ in need of renovation’ did not do justice to the mammoth task that lay ahead at Ballinafad. Work began in 2014 and initially consisted of removing years of debris compounded by two decades of abandonment. Luckily despite the neglect, the new owner found that the main block of the house, the original Ballinafad House, still retained a wealth of original details such as plaster work, door and window cases which had survived. Currently the entrance porch has its diamond pattern windows removed for restoration but the beauty of the fanlight of the original front door to Ballinafad can be appreciated. Once inside you are greeted by a wonderfully restored elaborate ceiling rose and from here, you can access one of the most impressive areas of the house, a large double height hall where the staircase is contained. Illuminated by a large window, this space retains beautiful vaulted spaces that contain delicate plaster work. It is from these vaulted spaces that one gains access to the two large reception rooms at the front of the house. The original drawing room to the front of the house is luckily one of the most intact rooms to survive, and here a ceiling depicting musical instruments and foliage awaits redecoration, replacing the strong garish colours of its previous colour scheme from possibly 40 years ago. One wonders if the choice of the musical instruments illustrated on this ceiling was to reflect the musical nature of the Blake Family that George Moore spoke about. The dining room on the opposite side of the entrance front has not fared as well. Here the ceiling with its central plaster ceiling rose of fruit is largely damaged however a hopefully Bede directs my attention to a carefully collected and stacked pile of fragments on the floor that will be reinstated. This room is thought to be the dining room due to the choice of ceiling decoration and its proximity to the servants staircase, which is located directly across the vaulted hall, provided direct access to the kitchen in the basement. The dining room is not the only room to be damaged during the years of neglect, a leaky roof caused the corroded water tanks to collapse which completely destroyed rooms in one back corner of the house. 

A large room in the wing of the house that dates from 
the 1950's,  will be used as a space for events such as weddings.
Picture ( above and below)  Copyright ICHC 


This damaged area where these rooms once occupied was open from the ground floor to what remained of the roof, the ceiling and floor in between were obliterated and therefore necessitated a complete rebuilt. Today walking though these reinstated rooms, details such as the cornicing, window shutters and high skirting boards look pristine, not giving any hint of the scene of destruction that originally confronted Bede. The SMA had extended Ballinafad House substantially over the years, adjoining wings built in the 1940's and 1950's were added to either side of the original house, together with an auditorium and a chapel. Today the beauty of the chapel's stained class windows that commemorate the work of the SMA can be appreciated having been recently restored. The 1950's wing and the auditorium have had substantial restoration work carried out and work in the original house is progressing at a steady pace. The 1940's wing will be a later project, but stabilisation work has been carried out including work to the work to the roof, any further deterioration in this wing has been arrested. As a result of the additions carried out by the SMA, the house is now easily adaptable for the new venture proposed by its current owner as Ballinafad House will open next year as an event venue. Here events such as weddings can be held in the Ballinafad's recently restored large reception room with 13 restored sash windows and chandeliers. 

The interior of the Priests House which has been converted
in a beautiful home, as I said at the beginning of this piece, 
to never judge this house by its exterior.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Bede is currently working against the clock, Ballinafad will feature in a RTE programme about the restoration of the house to be screened in 2018. For this programme, a number of rooms will be completed and the main facade of the house will boast newly restored windows. The people of Mayo are lucky that Bede is carrying out such a sensitive restoration and is so committed to the project. Ballinafad could have languished for years on the market before it was either vandalised further or eventually collapsed from neglect. Therefore I wish Bede well and I look forward to making a return visit as Ballinafad House to see the fruits of his efforts in reversing the fortunes of this country house. One of the things I noticed at Ballinafad is a religious painting that is hanging over the staircase, it is distressed from the time the house was abandoned and open to the elements. This painting has hung here since the time of the SMA and despite its condition I think Bede has made the correct choice to keep it. Once Ballinafad is complete, this painting will remind people of the changing fortunes of the house, the level of dereliction that it descended to and the herculean task involved in revitalising this surviving home of the Blakes.

A religious painting that has stood guard over
the main staircase, possibly since 1908, has
presided over the changing fortunes of the mansion.
This painting endured while the house was abandoned 
in the 1970's and water ran down the walls on which it hung. 
So it is fitting that the new owner has decided to
retain it in situ as Ballinafad looks to a brighter future.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 






Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Towerhill House
Carnacon, Co. Mayo

The Entrance Front of Towerhill as it once was 
and as it is today, the ruin disguised by trees and ivy
Picture ( bottom) Copyright ICHC, Picture ( Top) from Walking Holidays Ireland Website
One country house in Mayo has a direct connection with the famous Green and Red of Mayo, the colours that the GAA county footballers will wear when they go to battle in Croke Park. The demesne that surrounds Towerhill House near Carnacon in County Mayo is said to have been the setting for a Gaelic football match organised by the Blake Family, for whom Towerhill was their ancestral home. It was here on the 23rd January 1887 that the local team from nearby Carnacon first wore a green and red jersey which was the origin of the colours that the Mayo team wear today. This event is commentated with a plaque at the gates that once formed the main approach to the house. The Blakes were Catholic landlords who provided employment, built a local school and also are credited with supporting the early incarnation of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Unfortunately Towerhill has not survived but has disappeared from view, surrounded by a forest of trees that obscure its very existence. The two storey over basement classical style house, unique in having a pediment on each of its four facades, is now indistinguishable from the ivy covered hulk we see today. Towerhill was once the home of the prominent Blake family who descended from John Blake, the 4th son of Sir Valentine Blake of Menlo in Galway. The Blakes of Towerhill were relatives of prominent families in the locatity such as the Blakes of Ballinafad House and the Moore Family of Moore Hall. The writer, George Moore once said ''Moore Hall had always seemed to me to be a mansion house inferior to Clogher and Tower Hill'.

The Entrance Gates to Towerhill near
Carnacon, Co. Mayo
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
The mansion near Carnacon in Mayo was said to have been built for Isidore Blake, who died in December 1818, so the only thing known is that the house was built prior to this date. However Isidore married in 1767 which could give us a better indication of when the house was built. Isidore's son, Maurice Blake, born in 1771, married Maria O'Connor, the daughter of Valentine O'Connor in August 1803. The marriage produced a son and heir to Towerhill, Valentine O'Connor Blake who was born in 1808. Valentine O'Connor Blake married the Honourable Margaret Mary ffrench the daughter of Charles Austin ffrench, 3rd Baron ffrench of Castle ffrench in Galway. Lord ffrench died in September 1860, aged 74 years, and strangely he is buried in the Blake family vault outside the church in Carnacon rather than in the ffrench family vault. Valentine O'Connor Blake was the High Sheriff in Mayo in 1839 and was said to have been one of the first Catholics since the Reformation to hold that position. Valentine O'Connor Blake died in 1879, aged 71 at St. Kevin's, Bray in Co. Wicklow where it is said he had been staying for a number of months. His remains were conveyed by rail to Claremorris Station where they were met by horse drawn hearse and brought to Towerhill. Here they lay until his burial in nearby Carnacon in the Blake family vault where his hearse was followed by a procession of  250 of the tenants of the estate. 

Bunowen Castle near Ballyconnely,Galway,
 The summer residence of the Blake Family
from Towerhill

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Another property owned by the Blakes of Towerhill was Bunowen Castle in Co. Galway which they used as a summer residence due to its maritime location. In 1853, Valentine O'Connor Blake bought Bunowen Castle and the estate in the parish of Ballindoon, Co Galway, from John Augustus O'Neill. Valentine improved the castle and made it habitable. In the 1870's, Valentine O'Connor Blake of Towerhill and Bunowen Castle owned 4,198 acres in county Mayo and 7,690 acres in county Galway. The demesne around the house of Towerhill alone extended to over 300 acres. After the death of Valentine O'Connor Blake, Towerhill passed to his eldest son, Maurice and Bunowen passed to his second son, Charles, who made further improvements to the castle and left it ' as imposing as any of the other Galway mansions'. However Charles choose not to live there as he had purchased in 1880, Heath House at Maryborough and therefore a younger brother Thomas went to live at Bunowen. The Galway property was sold to the Congested Districts Board in 1909 and half the Mayo property in February 1914. Bunowen Castle is a ruin today, however it seems to have faired slightly better than Towerhill.

A site map showing the extent of the Towerhill Demense
Picture ( above)  Copyright OSI
In 1894, Towerhill is recorded as being the fine home of Colonel Maurice Blake, he had married Jeanette in 1863, the only daughter of a surgeon named Pierce O'Reilly from Dublin. Colonel Blake was the High Sheriff of Mayo, a Colonel in the Mayo Militia and was the Foreman of the Grand Jury. At the time of the 1901 census, Maurice Blake and his wife, Jeannette are living in Towerhill with their son Valentine aged 34 and his three sisters Olivia aged 35, Georgina aged 22 and Margaret aged 25. Maurice's brother, Thomas, who is a barrister aged 51 and  listed as being born at Towerhill is also present in the house. Staff in the house on the night of the census extended to five female servants and a groom.  In the same year, a serious fire occurred in the stables of Towerhill which threatened all the buildings in the yard near the rear of the house. Colonel Blake dispatched his three daughters on bicycles, to cycle through the village and gather as many people as possible to help put out the fire. Horses, carriages and carts were rescued from the stables before the roof collapsed. A section of the roof near the adjoining buildings was pulled down in case the fire might spread. By 1904, plans were afoot by the local tenants for the estate to be broken up and the land sold to them, if the sale price was agreeable to all parties involved. At the time of the 1911 census, Maurice Blake is still in residence in Towerhill, he is now aged 73, is a retired Colonel, a Roman Catholic and his birthplace is listed as being Dublin. He shares the mansion with his wife, Jeannette aged 69, their daughters Olivia, aged 45, Georgina, aged 42 and Margaret aged 36 all of whom were born in Dublin and are unmarried. Maurice's son Valentine also lives in Towerhill, he is a retired Captain aged 44 and is also unmarried. Staff in Towerhill included five female servants and Michael Hayden aged 28 from Tipperary who is the Butler. The house is recorded as having 31 rooms and 30 outbuildings.
A surviving fragment of the window that once
over looked the landing of the staircase
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC
Some of Maurice Blake's children predeceased him, his daughter Cecelia Mary died in 1888 and Frances Mary died in 1897. In 1913, Maurice's second son Charles died at Towerhill of pneumonia which developed after a day out shooting on the estate.  In April 1915, Colonel Maurice Charles Joseph Blake died aged 77 years and left an estate valued at £5,938.00. His wife Jeannette died just over a year later in Dublin when visiting friends in December 1916, followed by the death of her daughter Margaret Mary in October 1938. Towerhill passed to the eldest son Valentine  while his sisters Georgina and Olivia Blake continued to live in the mansion with him. This is evident from the number of advertisements they placed in the 1940's looking for suitable parlour maids. However it was the death of Valentine that heralded the end for Towerhill as the home of the Blake family. Valentine Joseph Blake died, unmarried, aged 81, in July 1947 at Towerhill and left an estate in his will valued at £8,705. His two sisters remained living in the house for roughly another year after which they auctioned the contents in 1948. The auction took place over a number of days after which, the sisters moved to Loftus Hall, a convent, in Co. Wexford. Allen and Townsend Auctioneers were tasked with the sale that included furniture, live stock, farm implements and household effects to take place on the 18th and 19th May 1948. Items sold included a full sized billiard table, full sized concert grand piano and the contents of nine bedrooms. It was recorded prior to the sale that the house contained  'many fine apartments, antique furniture and portraits in oils of various members of the family adorn the walls' however there is no mention made of any of the family portraits being sold.
The memorial over the Blake Family
vault in Carnacon Church which is
located near Towerhill
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
With the departure of the sisters to Wexford, in June 1949, a demolition sale was announced for Towerhill, where 'first class' materials were available for purchase. The walls of Towerhill were to be stripped bare as the advertisement speaks of a 'Highly Important Demolition Auction' where items for sale include  ' Timber, Joists, Rafters, Mahogany Doors, Slates, Slate Slabs, Mouldings, Panels, Mantelpieces, Fire grates etc. etc.' The house has remained as a ruin but this sadly cannot not be appreciated today. As can be seen from the photographs, the house is barley visible, surround by tress and covered with ivy. Here and there, little glimpses of former grandeur can be seen. Fragments remain of the curved headed window that once stood on the half landing of the stairs that overlooked a very wide hall. Today even if you stood within 10 feet of the house, its ruin is invisible as the forest has become so thick that surrounds it. The Blake sisters spent the rest of their lives in St. Mary's Convent, Loftus Hall, Wexford where Georgina Blake died in January 1959 at and Olivia died in 1966,  both were returned for burial in the family vault in Carnacon.

The elegant bridge which once provided access to 
the entrance front of Towerhill
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
While the main gates of Towerhill are in relatively good condition, a decorative bridge found near the house has become badly damaged over the years. This is also obscured by trees and other vegetation with sections of the decorative balustrade having fallen into the stream below. This structure with its elegant arch spans a river that was realigned for Valentine O'Connor Blake in the 1850's as a famine relief drainage project. Today the only visible trace of the Blakes of Towerhill in the locality of Carnacon is a monument found over the Blake family vault in the grounds of the nearby church yard. While I understand that Towerhill is a ruin and the home to some rare bats surely something can be done to protect and consolidate these ruins and the nearby bridge. Yet again, I am astounded as I travel the country looking at buildings of this nature, that the word 'protected structure' is bandied about. Therefore I ask, looking at the photographs here, how is the ruin of Towerhill or its surround structures protected by Mayo County Council. While this house will never be anything more than a ruin, it could be maintained in a fashion so that it could be appreciated as a piece of the architectural and cultural heritage of Mayo.

The entrance hall of Towerhill is barely distinguishable 
from the foliage that is slowly encroaching on the ruin.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

The entrance front of Towerhill is shrouded in ivy, only the 
faint outline of the window opes and pediment give any
indication of what lies beneath.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 



Friday, 1 September 2017

The Staircase of 
Eyrecourt Castle
 Co. Galway

A rare photograph of the entrance hall of Eyrecourt showing  the impressive carved staircase before its removal from the house in the 1920's

The current fate of the elaborate staircase from one of Galway’s lost country houses reminds me of the final scene of the film 'The Raiders of the Lost Ark'. An elderly gentleman is seen pushing a box through a warehouse filed with unopened timber crates containing unknown treasures. One wonders if the warehouse of the Detroit Institute of Art is as vast, as it is here that the staircase of Eyrecourt Castle from Co. Galway remains packed in boxes, unopened, since it left Ireland in the 1920's purchased by William Randolph Hearst. As this piece of our national architectural heritage lies forgotten and overlooked in the US, certainly the time has come to repatriate this piece of unique craftsmanship back to its homeland of Galway?

Eyrecourt Castle as it appeared in a sketch from 1854
Eyrecourt also known as Eyrecourt Castle, was a house in Co. Galway that was built in the 1660’s. It was described as a two storey over basement house with a high dormered attic. At the apex of the roof was a flat platform which was surrounded by rails that allowed members of the family to access the roof and view the surrounding country side. What could be seen from this vantage point was the land owned by the Eyre family, as the estate lands once extended to 48,000 acres.The interior of the house had a square foot print which was divided up by two thick internal walls that housed the four chimney stacks. It was one of the first Irish country houses built on a symmetrical plan and was also one of the earliest examples of an undefended country house in Ireland, as it predecessors would have been tower houses and castles. It was built by John Eyre, a colonel in the Cromwellian army, who was rewarded with Irish land for his loyalty. The exterior had the appearance of a heavy eaved Dutch style house with a high pitched roof. One of the most impressive elements of the exterior was a carved entrance door case. This door case included an oval fan light above which rested a carved panel inscribed with the words ‘WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF LIBERTY’.  

A photograph of members of the local hunt in front of Eyrecourt
in the background can be seen the elaborate carving 

of the door case .
John Eyre who built the Eyrecourt had marred Mary Bigoe from Offaly, he entered Parliament and became an Irish Privy Councillor after 1680. This marriage had a significant effect on the construction of the house as his new wife’s family owned a glass works which is said to have contributed to the fifty windows that the house possessed. The large amount of openings in the structure of the house is said to have contributed to collapse of the building in later years when it became ruinous. Despite having an abundance of windows it was said that none of them actually opened to provide ventilation. At the time of Eyrecourt's construction, it was the common held opinion that any substantial home especially the one of an up and coming gentleman should have a large and imposing staircase. Therefore John Eyre certainly wished to impress visitors to his home as one third of the floor area of his new house was occupied by the staircase. It was said that to have been carved in Holland and shipped to Galway to be installed in Eyrecourt however some sources say that Dutch craftsman came to Galway and made the staircase in situ. The newel posts of the staircase were topped by carved urns filled with flowers and upon entering the house one was faced with the coat of arms of John Eyre and his wife Mary Bigoe. This grand staircase provided access to the principal reception room which were situated on the first floor of the house. The staircase had two flights which met on the half landing which returned on itself one hundred and eighty degrees and continued on as a single flight to the first floor. One visitor to the house in 1835, Samuel Leigh, noted that the house ‘has a curious and handsome staircase’

 
A sketch of the staircase in Eyrecourt by Lady Gregory
from Coole Park
Over the years the house passed through members of the family, a large amount of the recipients in each generation were named John possibly after the man who built the house. The first John Eyre,  who built Eyrecourt,  was succeeded by his son also named John who died in 1709. He in turn was succeeded by his son, George who died in 1711 without issue and was therefore succeeded by his brother named John. This John married the daughter of Lord Louth and the union produced two sons John and Giles. After the death of their father in 1741, meant John came into possession of the estate. He had married but this union produced a daughter who predeceased him by two years. When John died in 1745, the estate went to his brother Giles. He was the Dean of Killaloe and when he died in 1757, he was succeeded by his son named John. John Eyre was elevated to the peerage in 1768 and he became Baron Eyre of Eyrecourt. He married and the union produced a daughter, Mary who married the Hon. Francis Caulfield, the third son of Viscount Charlemont, and they had a son named James Eyre Caulfield. Unfortunately Mary, Francis and James died in 1775 when the ship on which they were travelling sank during a hurricane during their passage from Ireland to London. When Lord Eyre died in 1781, his title died with him, so he was the first and last Lord Eyre.  The estate passed to his nephew Giles who died in 1830, after which Eyrecourt  passed to his eldest son by his first wife, another heir name John. The large rent roll of the Eyre Estate had allowed members of the family to indulge their passion for hunting. At Eyrecourt there was once kept a stable of 40 horses, also the noise from the hounds kenneled there would disturb the solemn atmosphere of the Sunday service in the nearby church. However this extravagance coupled with the loss of £80,000 on an unsuccessful election in 1811 resulted in the estate appearing for sale in the Encumbered Estates schedule in 1854. The Eyre Family managed to hang on to Eyrecourt but by 1883, the Eyres were again considered insolvent.

A map of Eyrecourt showing the house and stables
John Eyre who now owned the estate was born in April 1820, he married Eleanor Maria Moore in October 1846 and the marriage produced twelve children. He died in April 1890 and the estate was inherited by his third son William Henry Gregory Eyre as two elder brothers had died in 1878 and 1881. In the 1901 census Gregory Henry Gregory Eyre, an assistant Land Commissioner aged 40 and unmarried, lived in the house with his mother Eleanor and his 22 year old niece Isobell together with their 4 servants and their gardener. By the time of 1911 census, the house was occupied by Eleanor Maria aged 85 and her daughter Bessie Caroline, a widow, aged 44. They lived in the house with their butler, gardener, cook and three maids. The house is described as having 36 rooms and 21 out buildings. In 1915, during the First World War, George Haberer, a German who was employed as a butler at Eyrecourt was arrested and send to the interment camp at Oldcaslte. William Henry Gregory Eyre was a popular gentleman in the local community who had renovated Eyrecourt Castle and had installed electricity.  Eleanor Eyre died in December 1922 and her son William Henry Gregory died in February 1925 aged 64 in a Dublin nursing home. 

Gradually over the years Eyrecourt decayed and descended into
ruin
In March 1926, the sale by public auction of the Estate of William Henry Gregory Eyre was announced in the national press to begin on Tuesday 4th May at 12 o’clock. The estate was to be sold in five lots by Taylor Auctioneers of Portumna Galway. Eyrecourt Castle and its demense of 600 acres was purchased by Richard Howard for £5,000.  The London firm of White Allom, a firm owned by the English decorator Sir Charles Allom, purchased the staircase and other woodwork from Eyrecourt and sold it to William Randolph Hearst. Sir Charles Allom was the decorator of choice for Hearst as he had an impeccable client list having been knighted for his interior decoration of Buckingham Palace for King George V. William Randolph Hearst was the owner of the largest newspaper chain in America and at the time was probably one of the richest men in the world. He purchased the staircase and the panelling from the Eyrecourt as it was to be installed in his vast mansion under construction in California called San Simeon which would eventually extend to 165 rooms and sat at the centre of a 40,000 acre estate. In the late 1920’s William Randolph Hearst was touring Europe satisfying his hunger for collecting art, antiques and architectural salvage. As well as collecting these unique architectural treasures he was also looking for a castle as a base in Europe, which he found in St. Dona’s in South Wales. It was here that the panelling from the drawing room of Eyrecourt was installed as Hearst intended to renovate the castle to suit his needs. This included the installation of over sixty bathrooms for house parties where the guest list might extend to over one hundred guests. It was at this time that Hearst began to increase his consumption of items that might be suitable for any one of his homes. Allom began sourcing fireplaces and other items for the Welsh castle and kept Heart abreast of auctions and items of interest. Telegrams crossed the Atlantic which informed Hearst of ceilings, staircases, fireplaces and even barns were coming up for sale.  In an exhibition catalogue from London in 1928, a panelled room from Eyrecourt is advertised. It is reported that an exhibition of works of art organised by the Daily Telgraph included pine paneling and chimney piece taken from Eyrecourt. In the report it states that the paneling has never been painted, however the curators of the exhibition decided to paint it green and silver so it would harmonise with the furniture that was featured in the same display. After he staircase was sold to Hearst, it was removed from the house in a number of crates, it crossed the Atlantic and was deposited in one of his vast warehouses in the Bronx in New York. One of these ware houses was a five storey building where staff were employed to photograph and catalogue the collection. To have some understanding of the nature of Hearst insatiable habit of collecting, one warehouse in 1937 was found to contain 10,700 crates which contained the stones of a Spanish monastery. From 1937, Hearst began to divest himself of some of his collection as the Great Depression was beginning to affect his finances. Hearst died in 1951, aged 88 and in 1958 the staircase from Eyrecourt was donated to the Detroit Institute of Art where it remains in storage. In 1973 and attempt was made to have the staircase returned to Ireland. By 1975, Desmond Guinness said that The Detroit Art Institute was interested in a proposal to swap the staircase for a number of American Indian artifacts contained in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. However the deal foundered and the staircase remains in the US. Gradually what remained of Eyrecourt in Galway collapsed and today is barely recognisable as the magnificent house it once was.