Friday, 6 August 2021


Westport House

Restoration & Revitalisation

Westport House, Co. Mayo wrapped in scaffolding as restoration works continue
Copyright: ICHC

Several weeks ago, I was afforded the opportunity to visit the restoration works that have continued apace at Westport House, Co. Mayo for the last number of months. To describe the works as vast is an understatement, multiple storeys of scaffolding now shroud the grand mansion, as issues are tackled from the basement to the tops of the chimney stacks. The weather in the west of Ireland is often described as changeable, which mirrors the fortunes of Westport House. The efforts to keep the rain out of this historic home and to allow it to remain in the Browne Family has exhausted many fortunes over the centuries. Financial pressures eventually led to the decision of the Brownes to end their tenure of the property after nearly 300 years and entrust it into the hands of the local Hughes family, once tenants of the estate in generations past. The excesses of immense wealth in the 18th and 19th century aggrandised and extended the house, in a time when the Browne family owned thousands of acres of Irish land and Jamaican sugar plantations. Changing times and the reversal of fortune meant that this jewel in the crown of Mayo’s architectural heritage had become tarnished. Water ingress was prevalent through the roof, walls and windows leading to a host of problems hidden behind the trappings of this grand home. Several years ago, I visited the house, and initially the grand rooms appeared impressive but when one looked closer, water damaged cornicing and stained ceilings abounded. A valiant attempt to re-roof the house in 2007 heaped further financial pressure on the Browne Family and it became clear, when working on a historic structure of this nature, fixing one problem revealed a host of others. 

Works to the roof include the renewal of roof surfaces and lead work
Copyright: ICHC

Once the Hughes family took over the property in 2017, moisture was permeating every crack and crevasse in the external envelope of the structure, damaging the historic and beautiful interiors within.  George Moore of another nearby Mayo estate, Moore Hall, complained in the early 1900’s about ‘the drip’ and how rain always managed to find a way to penetrate the house.  The landed gentry at that time lived with dampness in their homes but also had a large staff to ensure many open fires were lit and refuelled which ensured that the constant battle with dampness was always won. Today, Westport House is hidden under layers of scaffolding and polythene, disguising the hive of activity underneath.  This year marked the beginning of the first phase of works on the house which will be completed in Autumn 2021 when the house will emerge once again from its protective covering.  The vast and necessary forensic repairs to this house means that there will be very little change left out of €5 million and forms part of a €75 million plan for the entire estate. Acres of roof, hundreds of windows and numerous chimneys meant a herculean task faced the Hughes Family when they became part of the continuing history of Westport House in 2017.

The original entrance front Westport House, Co. Mayo dating from 1730
Copyright: ICHC

Westport House was built for John Browne, later the first Earl of Altamont, to a design by the architect Richard Castle (also known as Cassels) in 1730.  An impressive feat for the 21-year-old Earl who initiated the construction of Westport House and created what is now the entrance front.  The Browne home was possibly built on the site of an earlier house and is believed to encompass the cellars of an O’Malley castle. The barrel-vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall is thought to be one of the only internal elements from the 1730’s house that has survived which was designed by Castle.  Castle also designed Hazelwood House in Sligo which shares several similarities with its Mayo cousin, particularly the decoration and arrangement of the main entrance door surround.  

The glazed section of roof that sits at the centre of the roofscape of
Westport House and provides natural light to the staircase
Copyright: ICHC

The second Earl of Altamont, married well, an heiress, Elizabeth Kelly who filled the family coffers with a substantial dowry that included vast Jamaican sugar plantations. The Browne’s were now one of the wealthiest families in Ireland who could afford to extend and improve their home in Westport on a grand scale. Improvements were not restricted only to the house as grand plans were also implemented for the wider estate which included the town of Westport. Additional wings were added to the house in the 1770’s to house the grand rooms required by a family of the Browne’s stature to entertain their contemporaries. A design thought to be by Thomas Ivory increased the size of the house, which eventually grew to three times the size of the original 1730 house, which now had a inner courtyard at its centre. However, it is disputed how much of this phase of the Westport House’s construction was actually designed by Ivory.  A distinct similarity between the oval ceiling of the secondary staircase hall in Westport House and one that once existed in Clonbrock House in Co. Galway points to the architect William Leeson. The use of Venetian and Diocletian window openings on the garden front have further bolstered the opinion that this work is that of Leeson. 

The garden front which is thought to be the work of Thomas Ivory
but it is also possibly thought to have been created by William Leeson
Copyright: ICHC
The ceiling in Westport House, on the left and on the right, a similar ceiling 
once found in Clonbrock House in Galway
Copyright: ICHC

The third Earl of Altamont and first Marquess of Sligo employed James Wyatt to complete the interior of the dining room in 1781. The adjoining gallery is also said to have had an interior by Wyatt but his son Benjamin Dean Wyatt was responsible for its removal, considering his father’s work to have gone out of fashion. Each generation continued to leave their own mark , the second Marquess added terraces to either side of the house between 1816 and 1819, which contained additional rooms at basement level. It was in one of these areas that the second Marquess created a library designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt which was destroyed by fire in 1826, owing to a over ambitious heating system.  The house once had a courtyard at its centre but after the destruction of the library in 1826, this courtyard was roofed in and accommodated the replacement library.  

The main staircase in Westport House presided over by the Angel of Welcome
Copyright: ICHC

The library was replaced in the late 1850’s by the impressive staircase that now stands at the end of the barrel-vaulted entrance hall.  Made of Sicilian marble with a metal handrail that features the family emblem of an eagle that can be seen throughout the property. It is one of the most dramatic and distinctive spaces in the property, presided over by a statue of the Angel of Welcome. Decorated with beautiful plasterwork, the staircase is top lit by the glazed section that remains at the centre of the roof of the house. When one views the roof works from on high, you can see the original mechanism is still in place for raising and lowering the chandelier over the staircase.

Roof Works at Westport House
Copyright: ICHC

As previously mentioned, the house is now in the ownership of the Hughes family since 2017 who have now implemented the first phase of works to secure the structure and prevent the ingress of moisture in the external envelope of the building. Necessary roofing works carried out in 2007, included the restoration of the glazed pitched roof to the top of the central hall, having been covered in galvanised sheeting for a number of years. Many local people remember this time as the house was enveloped in a barn like structure while roofing works were carried out. However, a lot of lessons were learnt from this time and current works include the introduction of necessary ventilation to the roof structure. Historic structures were never intended to be hermetically sealed but were always  allowed to breath.   A previous lack of ventilation meant that warm air rising inside the house hit the bottom of the cold lead on the internal face of the roof surface. Once the moisture rich warm air interacted with the cold surface, it condensed, releasing its moisture. This moisture collected on surfaces within the roof structure and could not evaporate to the open air. It was trapped in the internal roof environment, rotting timber and causing damage. The stone capping around the perimeter of the building has been removed, the lead work has been renewed and ventilation introduced. Lead valleys behind the parapet have been renewed, new falls have been created to manage the water from the roof surface, so no rainwater pipe or gulley is overwhelmed in a downpour of rain. Where possible some of the original copper valleys have been retained.

The cast iron chimney pots
Copyright: ICHC

I was recently afforded the opportunity to view the works being carried out on the roof, a privilege I would say enjoyed by very few. Seeing the numerous chimney pots up close, one can see they are made of cast iron and not terracotta which could not withstand the harsh winds and rain from nearby Clew Bay. There are between 55 and 65 chimneys on the roofscape of the house including some very unusual flues contained in the outer walls which terminate at parapet level. These flues from the basement have being hiding in plain sight for years and I never noticed them until the opportunity to view them from the scaffolding. These flues in the outer walls, have a structural implication, weakening walls and causing issues in the interior of the house.

The parapet chimney pots of Westport House, Co. Mayo
Hiding in plain sight for years 
Copyright: NLI

The Wyatt dining room is decorated with superb plasterwork reminiscent of Wedgewood medallions. Designed to reflect the status of the Browne family, the doors in this room are made from mahogany that originated from the Browne’s Jamaican estates. The quality of the timber can be judged by its weight, as it requires four workmen to lift one door.  The construction manager on this mammoth project, told me that when these chimneys were in use, it would draw air into the house moving warm fresh air through the property. 

The renewed chimney pots at parapet level
Copyright: ICHC
When finances and staff levels dropped in the early 20th century, fires weren’t lit as often or at all. The Wyatt dining room looked to be in reasonable condition however when the curtains and pelmets were removed from the outer wall, the full effects of water ingress could be seen. Damaged plaster and paintwork highlighted the need for the works currently being undertaken to save this precious interior. A set of drawings survive dated 1781 by James Wyatt illustrating his scheme for the dining room of Westport House for the first Marquess. Works have now been carried out to arrest this decay and future plans include for the consolidation and repair of this precious interior.

The Wyatt Dining Room with its contents in situ
before works were undertaken
Damage to the walls and plasterwork of the Wyatt Room
caused by water penetration
Copyright: ICHC

Historically accurate improvements to the management of surface water from the roof of the house has ensured that mistakes of the past are not repeated. The large catchment area of the roof, which was once served by a single box outlet has now been increased to two. This additional outlet was in existence on the parapet of the house in the 1950’s but for some reason was reduced during that period. Other interventions on the roof include the introduction of modern health and safety requirements. The inclusion of a fall arrest system will allow the roof and its internal gutters to be cleaned with greater ease which will negate the need to set up scaffolding. This future plan for the maintenance of this roof structure will ensure the longevity of the works currently being carried out. Sand and cement pointing has been removed from the facades and replaced with lime render, which will allow moisture to escape from the building. Previously the sand and cement, trapped water against the façade meaning the stone could never have an opportunity to fully dry out. There is one aesthetic trade-off, the lines of the lime mortar pointing around the cut stone are not as sharp and defined as they once were with sand and cement. Some of the stonework on the facades of the house is damaged, so repairs are necessary in a number of locations. The forensic attention to detail is evident as the integrity of each stone is checked, catalogued and replaced if necessary.

Areas of stonework on the facade that require further
investigation and attention
Copyright: ICHC

The interior of the house is shrouded in darkness as repairs to the windows mean the glazed openings are covered, as works continue apace outside The interior is denuded of most of its contents and items that are too delicate or to large to move have been protected in an outer shell of plywood. Before any works were carried out, an inventory and assessment of each room was undertaken to ensure nothing was lost or damaged during the works. As one walks through each of the interconnecting spaces, the damage wrought by the decades of water damage is now clear. Now that curtains, paintings and furniture have been removed, damaged plasterwork is plain to be seen. 

Water damage to the interior of Westport House
Copyright: ICHC

On the first floor of the house, the water damage from a leaking chimney is most evident. Plaster had become discoloured with soot, as water leached through the structure from the roof. Now that repairs to the roof and chimneys are afoot, this internal plaster has now been removed, revealing saturated red brick beneath dating from the time of the construction of the first phase of the house in 1730. In an adjoining bedroom, the judicious removal of the damaged building fabric has occurred. One can now see the various layers of lath, plaster and brick topped with a delicately decorated coved plaster ceiling. Once these walls have been allowed to dry out adequately, historically accurate repairs will be undertaken to return the room to its original splendor.

The area of the house that once contained the 1816 Library.
The outline of shelves and gallery supports are still visible
Copyright: ICHC

Another interesting revelation uncovered during the works is the return of the space that housed a library, destroyed by fire in 1826. While the fixtures and fittings are a distant memory, the original volume of the space is visible for the first time in nearly two hundred years.  After the conflagration in the 1800’s destroyed the interior, the room was split into two floors and housed guest accommodation until the 1960’s when it became a home within a home for the Browne family.  Now in 2021, the original 1816 space is now visible for the first time in nearly two centuries as the partitions and the dividing floor have been removed. Ghostly outlines are visible in brickwork that housed shelves which once contained many first editions. Around the perimeter of the room, at first floor level, can be seen some of the surviving supports for the gallery, which gives one an impression of the large collection of books once housed here. 

Top: The cast iron roof lights that once sat atop the 1816 Library
Copyright: NLI
Below: The rooflights photographed in 2015
Copyright: Gearoid Muldowney

This library was once topped by large cast iron framed, domed, glazed roof lights, which still survive on the estate in storage and one day it is hoped to return them to their original home on the roof of the former library. One can see the outline on the ceiling of the circular openings that allowed one to browse the collection bathed in natural light, albeit briefly, before it was turned to ash by an unregulated heating system. In 1936, Westport House suffered another fire which destroyed the billiard room. The house was only saved by the efforts of the staff and the Galway Fire Brigade that had to travel 50 miles. Again, the cause of the fire was the heating system, as the furnace was located directly below the billiard room.

Window have been restored and the original iron mongery
has been retained
Copyright: ICHC

In 1876, the 3rd Marquess of Sligo remained the largest landowner in Mayo with an estate extending to 114,881 acres which was mostly sold to the Congested Districts Board in 1914 but the sale was not finalised until the 1920’s by the Land Commission. The estate today is reduced to 430 acres, its original main entrance and avenue from the town of Westport, has now been cut off from the house. Replaced with housing and other developments, this land was unnecessarily (in my opinion) acquired in a compulsory fashion by Westport Urban Council in the 1950’s. This dramatically altered the relationship of the house with the town of Westport forever. The combination of the deaths of three successive Marquesses of Sligo in 1941, 1951 and 1953 meant that the estate was burdened with inheritance tax. This almost forced the sale of the house in the 1950’s, except a buyer could not be found. 

Westport House in 2019 before works were undertaken
Copyright: ICHC

With the loss of estate lands, the 10th Marquess considered selling or demolishing the house due to the crippling rates imposed on a property and estate of this size. In 1976, Lord Altamont was reported as saying that he intended to apply for planning permission to have the house ‘’pulled down’’ because of the attitude at the time of the Government towards houses such as Westport House and imposition of a Wealth Tax. The 10th Marquess decided to test the market for a house such as Westport and advertised the house for sale in Ireland and England. He had two firm offers, one of £6,000 from a Kilkenny company who wished to demolish the house and another for £7,500 from a Galway solicitor who wanted 60 acres of the surrounding land thrown in for good measure. To try and maintain Westport House, the 11th Marquess decided to open the house to the public in the 1960’s to generate funds. Jeremy Ulick Browne, the 11th Marquess of Sligo and 13th Earl of Altamont also faced the problem that he had five daughters and no male heir. As he fought to save his family home, the prospect also existed, that upon his death, Westport House and Estate could only be inherited by the eldest male heir. The Altamont Act was signed into law in 1993, by Mary Robinson, who had helped draft the document before her election as president. This Act meant that the daughters of the 11th Marquess could now inherit the estate and could not be disinherited because of their gender. When Jeremy died in 2014, the estate would not last much longer in the Browne family despite his pioneering spirit. The title of the Marquess of Sligo, long associated with Westport House, now passed to a cousin based in Australia.

A decorative stone finial is secured while the lead flashing
under the parapet stone is renewed
Copyright: ICHC

Despite eventually becoming one of the most visited tourist sites in Mayo, many works of art and pieces of furniture were sold over the years to try and preserve the architectural legacy of the Browne family. It was now clearly evident in the 20th century that the wealth of previous generations was gone which had once sustained a property such as this. Efforts made to make the estate and house self-sustaining, while preserving it intact, resulted in deeper and deeper debt. The Browne family reluctantly agreed to sell the estate following an accumulation of debt that amounted to millions of euro, borrowed to develop the estate. Westport House and Estate appeared on the market in 2016, with an asking price of €10 million, the county of Mayo held its breath. There was now a distinct possibility that the house could be sold to some reclusive billionaire who would shut the gates of this much-loved piece of our county’s heritage.  Luckily for the people of Mayo, the philanthropic spirit of the local Hughes family is matched by their entrepreneurial and business acumen. A lot of the works now being undertaken, costing millions of euro, will be invisible but is instigated by the Hughes Family to create a stable base for the continuing improvement of Westport House. When the works are complete and the scaffolding removed, the house will look very much as it was. This is a testament to the care and attention now being lavished on the house solving hidden problems that have degraded the house for generations. None of the works will be so invasive that they will dramatically alter its appearance, to do so would detract and destroy the wonderful architecturally legacy that has endured.  

For more photos of this highly fascinating project follow me on Instagram @irish_country_houses.

Westport House will begin their Restoration Tours on the 12th August 2021, for further details please see

Thursday, 1 April 2021


The Episcopal Residence
Ballina , Co. Mayo

The Episcopal Residence, also known as the Bishop’s Palace in Ballina, Co. Mayo, has for generations been recognised as the home of the Catholic Bishop of Killala. Many believe that this house was built for that sole purpose however it was actually a bespoke luxury home built for a local businessman in the early 1900’s. This house was once known as Highfield which aptly describes its elevated location on Howley Street on the banks of the River Moy.

Highfield was built in 1909 for Thomas John Reid, a Presbyterian by faith and owner of the Gas Works on Shambles Street in Ballina. Thomas or T.J., as he was known locally, was born on the 6th February 1872, his father, James was the manager of the gas works. At the time of the 1901 census, Thomas was unmarried and living in a six roomed house on Mill Street in Ballina with his mother, Jane, a widow, and his two sisters Martha and Jessie. Jane Reid died in 1903 and left an estate valued at £335, probate of her estate was granted to John Armstrong (a Jeweller) together with Martha and Jessie Reid, spinsters.  By 1911, Thomas John Reid, aged 39, had married Florence Eleanor Mathews aged 31, the union had produced three children, two daughters Beryl and Phyllis together with a son Robert Ivan. By the time of the 1911 census, the family are living in their new home, Highfield, which extended to fourteen rooms and twenty outbuildings.

The Episcopal Residence soon after it was purchased by the Diocese in 1927

Thomas’s wife whom he married in 1902 was originally Florence Mathews from Manchester, whose father originated from Castlebar. T.J. Reid built Highfield in 1909 to the design of an eminent Manchester architect, however despite his eminence, he remains unnamed. It is interesting to note that T.J. Reid’s wife also hailed from Manchester, so this architect may have been a relative or a business associate of the family. The house had a copper-covered flat roof which is not visible behind the parapet, reflective of the Italianate style popular during the Edwardian period. The construction of the building was carried out under the supervision of the owner who stated that the house was built on gravel subsoil which was overlaid with one foot of concrete and pitch. Over this substructure was laid a floor of thick pitch pine and hardwood. The grounds surrounding the property once extended to 7 acres and included a walled kitchen garden stocked with fruit trees etc.

The interior of the house comprised of a large entrance hall, dining room, breakfast room, kitchen and pantry. On the first floor there were two large bedrooms with bay windows to the front of the property and four smaller bedrooms to the rear serviced by a large bathroom. Behind the house there was a courtyard that accommodated the wash house, servant’s w.c., lumber room, dairy and coal house. Adjacent to the courtyard was a walled in yard which contained the coach or motor house, harness room and a large hay shed. Nearby the kitchen garden were cow houses and other outbuildings. The house had many innovations for the time such as copper piping throughout for hot water and inspection boxes were provided for drains which discharged into the nearby river. Gas and water were provided from the town supply and there was a large reservoir for the storage of water. St. Muredach’s College is an impressive building located beside Highfield, it was completed in 1906 having been commissioned by Reverend John Conmy (1843-1911), Bishop of Killala. In January 1917, Mrs. Reid placed an advertisement in The Western People looking for a governess to teach lessons and piano to a ‘little’ girl. In June, 1920, Mrs. Reid was seeking a general cook and a parlour maid highlighting that they would be accommodated in a very comfortable house with high wages.

The Reid family’s time at Highfield came to an end after just over one decade, when in February 1920, it was announced that Highfield would be sold by direction of T.J. Reid. It was stated that the residence and grounds were held under a lease of 999 years from the year of 1908, at the yearly rent of £15. By July 1921, the contents of Highfield were sold and several years later in 1927 the house was sold for £4,053.4s.9d to the Diocese to provide a new home for the Bishop of Killala. In today’s terms the sale price would amount to €2.1 million, I would imagine there would be consternation if this happened today however it did happen in a poor West of Ireland parish in the 1920’s. Highfield now became known as the Episcopal Residence, replacing the former home of the Bishop located in Ardnaree which overlooked the town. The first resident of the new Episcopal Residence was Bishop James Naughton, born in 1865 and a native of Ballina. He was appointed Bishop of Killala in November 1911 and was consecrated in Ballina in January 1912.  He died in 1950 and is buried in the grounds of St. Muredach’s Cathedral. The Reid family after their departure from Highfield now took up residence at Carramore House just outside the town of Ballina, following the departure of its former owner, Dr. Vaughan Jackson.

The Gas Works in Shambles Street, Ballina

In March 1920, a public meeting was held in the Ulster Minor Hall in Belfast of the newly formed Irish Flax Growers Association to demand immediate ‘’decontrol’’ of the 1919 Irish flax crop in order to provide ‘’a fair living for those that produced it’’. Apparently in 1919, the Irish flax crop was handed over to private firms for less than half its open market value. T.J. Reid from Ballina attended this meeting and was part of a deputation of flax growers from Mayo and Sligo. He spoke at this gathering and said that the long distance that they had travelled was an indication of the ‘measure of the interest which they attached to the new association’’. He finished his address by saying ‘’we will hold our flax until such time as it is free from all control’’. Growers in France and the UK were receiving over £5 a stone whereas the Irish producer received less than £2. T.J. Reid in partnership with St. George Laing had set up the Ballina Flax Mill Company and distributed flax seed at cost to encourage flax growing in the locality by small farmers. The changing and unsettled time in Ireland’s history is made apparent when in October 1920, T.J. Reid claimed £550 for his fishing huts destroyed by fire at Binghamstown.

In 1924, T.J. Reid being the owner of the local gas works prepared a paper on ‘’ The Position of the Gas Industry in Ireland, with Special Reference to Electrical Competition ‘’. Mr Reid indicated that during the past decade about a dozen works had been closed as a direct result of wars at home and overseas, industrial strife and unfair competition from electricity. Gasworks that had survived were still suffering difficulties. Possibly, became of this reason, TJ. Reid diversified and in 1930, he was awarded the contract for laying the new town water main costing £13,100 despite the lowest tender being that of another company from Co. Down.

  The chimney of the Gas Works seen on the right of the photograph

In December 1935, it was announced that the marriage would take place of T.J. Reid’s son, Ivan to Ethel Lenora Brown at Christ Church, Rawalpindi, India. Unfortunately, by February 1936, T.J. Reid died suddenly at his residence Carramore House. He was aged 64 and it was stated at the time that he was still the proprietor of the Ballina Gas Company and was an uncle of Mr. W. Reid, the manager of the Gas Works in, Athlone. The day before his death he had attended the auction at Castlereagh outside Killala, a home of the Knox family. Thomas John Reid was buried in the church yard of St. Michael’s Church Ardnaree where his headstone can be seen today. He was respected as an authority on all matters pertaining to gas works and was sought as a speaker at meetings of gas managers that took place all over the UK. It was noted that after the death of Mr. Reid, his daughter Miss Beryl Reid would continue as manageress and that the gas works would operate as it always had. However, one year later in 1937, J. Molloy & Sons, Building Contractors from Ballina acquired the Ballina Gas Works owned by the late T.J. Reid.

Carramore House Today

Beryl Reid, was obviously an entrepreneur like her father and had various enterprises at Carramore, the new Reid family home after Highfield.  Visitors to the house were amazed at her achievements in the garden as she had created intricate planted beds in front of the house. Miss Reid appears to have been an enterprising woman for her time as she had constructed three large glass houses, one alone measured 125 x 30 foot and this was in addition to the two older smaller glasshouses that already existed on the site. In July 1935, she had over 2,000 tomato plants growing and 10,000 chrysanthemums plants waiting to go to market. In the 1930's Carramore was also advertised as a guest house, so it appears Miss Reid was doing everything possible to make an income from the property as due to Thomas Reid’s death. In 1939, the house suffered a fire, one bedroom was destroyed and it was reported that two sisters Phyllis and Beryl and their invalid mother, Florence, were present in the house at the time. The fire, started by a wireless set, was fought by the sisters for three hours on their own with buckets of water. In April 1944, Beryl's and Phyllis's mother died and she was buried in St. Michael's Church in Ballina.  In August 1946, Carramore House was advertised in the national press for auction under the instruction of the representatives of the late Mrs. Florence Eleanor Reid, in the advertisement the house is described as 'a Magnificent Gentleman's Residence'. The accommodation of the house extended to four reception rooms, lounge, front hall, kitchen and twelve apartments (which must mean bedrooms). The grounds included a walled garden, coach house and tomato houses with room for 3,000 plants. A person who visited the house in the 1940's recorded that the family had only retained forty acres around the house and that the library of Carramore contained over 3,000 books.  In November 1957, it was reported that Carramore was to be demolished as it had recently been purchased with its land by two local farmers. By 1980, it was reported in the local press that Phyllis and Beryl Reid were living in Jersey.

The Reid’s former home Highfield has been the Bishop of Killala’s residence for nearly 100 years and remains one of the most recognisable landmarks in the town. The Reid Gas Works now long gone, were located on the site beside the river where the Ballina Manor Hotel is now built today. The Reid connection and contribution to the development of Ballina is largely forgotten however Highfield House endures as a lasting testament to the ambition of Thomas John Reid.

Friday, 13 November 2020

 Belleek Gate
Ballina , Co. Mayo

The surviving gate lodge of Belleek Castle is found on the aptly named Castle Road in Ballina, Co. Mayo. It is one of the most distinctive and recognisable features of the once great demesne of the Knox-Gore family that existed beyond. Few may know that this gate served as an architectural prototype for the main gate of one of the most famous castles in the world, Ashford Castle. Recently the recovery of the original timber gates of this stately entrance has awoken renewed local interest in preserving the rich architectural heritage of our town. Originally this entrance was not intended to be located on Castle Road but situated closer to the town centre in a similar fashion to Adare Manor in Limerick. It will also be a surprise to many that this architectural treasure came close to being demolished at a time when its value was not recognised.

The main gate at Belleek, also known locally as the Belleek Arch and the Tower Gate, was the prototype for the grand main gate at Ashford Castle, Co. Mayo. Both were designed by the same prolific architect, James Franklin Fuller, who was favoured by the upper classes such as the Guinness’s.  The main gate at Belleek was built in the early 1870’s which preceded the construction of the main gate at Ashford Castle, constructed around 1880. Fuller carried out alot of work for the Knox family in County Mayo in the 1870’s. In 1871, he was involved with the construction of Mount Falcon for Utred Knox and in 1872 and he also carried out a number of projects for the Knox-Gore’s of Belleek Manor. For them he designed this new gateway to the manor and an impressive monument over the grave of Arthur Knox-Gore who died in 1873. It was during this period in the 1870s that he was also involved with the design and construction of Errew Grange for Granville Knox. It is known from the tender drawings signed for the construction of nearby Mount Falcon, that Fuller’s builder of choice was a Meath man by the name of Henry Sharpe. As Sharpe was involved with the construction of Mount Falcon, it is possible that he also built Belleek Gate. Sharpe worked with Fuller on numerous projects and operated from Bective Street in Kells, Co. Meath. He was obviously successful, for when he passed away in 1905, he was listed as living at 12 Ailesbury Rd., Dublin which is now the Polish Embassy. It is also recorded that the construction of the main gate at Belleek was supervised by Mr. Pery of Coolcronan.

The inner facade of Belleek Lodge, note the number of windows, Copyright ICHC

In this decade, James Franklin Fuller was extremely prolific and was elected to a Fellowship by the Royal Institute of British Architects. When one looks at the gate lodge at Belleek, elements can be seen that are common not only to the gate lodge at Ashford but also elements of the castle situated beyond the gates in Cong. One can see familiar details when one compares the towers of Belleek Lodge and the towers found at Ashford Castle. Belleek Manor once had gate lodges at Castle Road and Killala Road, where gates were used to control access to the demesne or the private lands of the estate. These extended to pleasure grounds around the manor, the walled garden, the stables, outbuildings and even private family burial grounds. The main gates had an associated lodge, where the person ( and their family) resided that were tasked with opening and closing the gate. Impressive castellated gate lodges such as the one at Castle Road in Ballina were built to impress many and express the dominance in the community of the family that lived beyond. Like the grand houses of the upper classes, the designs of these gates lodges also followed the architectural fashion that was prevalent at the time. The gate lodge on Castle Road had accommodation at ground floor level with further rooms on the upper floor accessed by a stair accommodated in the tower. Interestingly all the windows in these rooms are on the inner façade of the gate lodge looking back towards Belleek Manor, keeping an eye out for the master approaching.  From an examination of the some elements that remain on the entrance gate today there appear to be a number of metal brackets that possibly supported a wire which was attached to a bell, that alerted the lodge keeper that someone was outside the gate. There are also the clasps and sockets found on the inner reveal of the arch of the entrance gate that the metal frame of the recovered gates would have been attached to.

Fuller was the architect for both Ashford Castle and Belleek Lodge,
Note the similarities between the tower of Ashford (above) and the tower of Belleek ( Below)
Copyright ICHC

The house beyond the main gates was known as Belleek Manor, once Belleek Abbey and is now known as Belleek Castle. Located on the banks of the river Moy, it was home to a branch of the Knox family, a Mayo dynasty who could all trace their roots back to Rappa Castle near Crossmolina. The family held many grand properties and extensive estates that extended across the county. Francis Arthur Knox-Gore inherited the property at Belleek at the age of fifteen, so improvements to the estate did not occur until 1837 with the completion of the Tudor Gothic mansion that sits at the centre of the demesne. Costing in the region of £10,000, its riverside location proved useful for the transportation of materials for its construction. Stone for the new mansion was ferried from a nearby quarry in Moyne, located further down the River Moy. It is quite possible that this same location was used to supply stone for the construction of the gate lodge in the 1870’s. When Sir Francis Arthur Knox-Gore of Belleek Manor was planning his estate at Belleek, it is said that he wished to have his main entrance gate opening on to one of the main streets of Ballina. Unfortunately, there was one field standing in the way of this ambition which belonged to Lord Arran. He refused to co-operate and was said to be jealous of Sir Arthur and his grand intentions. As a result, the proposed avenue was never completed, and the main gate was eventually relocated to its present position on Castle Road to replace an earlier structure. The gate lodge at Belleek was built to replace an arched access on the site which is known to have dated from before 1837.  This gate lodge was replaced by his son, Sir Charles James Knox- Gore, the second and last Baronet who succeeded to the estate in 1873. The second entrance was located along the Killala road, where the entrance to the Coca Cola factory is found today. It was demolished a number of decades ago but the iron gates, known as the black gates, still survive in a park nearer the town of Ballina.

The Entrance Front of Belleek Manor, Ballina, Co. Mayo
     Copyright ICHC
The wooden gates of the main lodge at Belleek were recently recovered from the riverbed of the River Moy. Messer’s Fagan & Sons, Great Brunswick Street in Dublin furnished gates for the main lodge at Ashford Castle which were based on designs prepared by James Franklin Fuller, the architect. Therefore, it is quite possible that Fagan’s also supplied the gates for Belleek, however it should be noted the gates currently found at Ashford are iron. In recent weeks, the original gates of Belleek Gate in Ballina, Co. Mayo have been recovered from their watery slumber on the bed of the River Moy, a project pioneered by Paul Carabine and the committee of Ballina Community Clean up. In the 1950’s, these gates were used to create a jetty on the river but were lost during a storm and sank to the riverbed. After their recent recovery, samples of the timber were sent to Queen’s University in Belfast to identify the species and origin of the timber. The tests revealed that the timber is Scots Pine: Pinus Sylvestris imported from Scandinavia or Russia in the 1870’s which may indicate that they were made further afield than Ballina. It is also quite possible for an estate such as Belleek, which was largely self-sufficient at this time, that the gates could also have been made by local craftsmen. The estate at one time employed over seventy people who tended to the kitchen garden, the sawmill, estate lands and a large kennel of hounds kept for hunting. The recovered gates comprise of a metal frame which the outer timber elements are bolted to. Traces of the original paint are visible, one area has a patch of red paint still remaining. From viewing the pair of gates recovered, one can appreciate the detail and scale of these relics. One gate is better preserved than the other having been shielded by the worst excesses of time and tide on the riverbed. The committee involved in their recovery now hope to restore and reinstate the gates back at Belleek Arch, an initial step in the process to eventually restore the whole structure.
The gates that once hung at the lodge at Belleek,
which have recently been recovered from the River Moy
     Copyright ICHC
Sir Charles James Knox Gore, 2nd Baronet of Belleek Manor, died on the 22nd December 1890, unmarried with a personal estate valued at £70,339 2s 2d. As Sir Charles had died with no male heirs, the title of Baronet died with him, having only been awarded to his father twenty-two years earlier. The estate at Belleek Manor and its land near Ballina, was entailed under the terms of Charles's fathers will, and was thus divided between his older sisters. In the 1870's the Knox Gore estate extended to over 22,000 acres of land in Mayo with a further 8,500 in Sligo which was mainly inherited by Charles’s sister Matilda. Charles upheld the family tradition and is buried in the grounds of the manor house near the river with his dog Phizzie, where modest headstones mark both their graves. Matilda married Major General William Boyd Saunders of Torquay who adopted his wife’s additional surnames to ensure their continuance to the next generation. In 1896, tickets of admission had to be acquired to enter past the main gates on Castle Road. The wooden gates of the lodge, now recovered, ensured that the demesne of Belleek remained private and secure for the Knox Gore family. These tickets which could only be obtained by letter to Major Saunders Knox Gore and used for limited access on certain days throughout the year. 
The sale of the contents of Belleek Manor in 1942

During the famine, the Knox Gores were benevolent landlords and in the 1920s the manor was unharmed during the worst excesses of the ‘The Troubles’. Attitudes began to change toward the residents of Belleek Manor in the 1930’s. In 1938, it was reported in the press that two or three years previously, Colonel Saunders Knox Gore had offered the estate to the Land Commission, but they had not chosen not to purchase the estate for division. This had angered members of the local community who had wanted the estate divided and resulted in several cattle drives, where livestock were driven off the lands of the Belleek Estate. The demesne lands at this time extended to over 1,000 acres and this land was leased for grazing. In 1942, the sale of the contents of Belleek Manor took place at the instruction of Col. Saunders Knox-Gore. It is noted that the sale included the contents of the Dining Room, Study, Front Hall, Library, Boudoir, Drawing Room, 10 bedrooms, Servant Rooms and Kitchen. It is also recorded that admission was by catalogue only which were offered for sale at the entrance lodge to the manor. Traps would operate from Knox’s Street to the manor on the date of the sale. In the same year, the manor house and its lands of 415 acres, 105 in pasture and 275 in lawns and plantations, were eventually purchased by the Beckett family. They had the intention of converting the estate into an equestrian focused business. The Beckett’s restored the manor but due to an unfortunate death in the family, their proposed scheme was never realised.

In 1948, Dr. Noel Browne, Minister for Health visited Belleek and in the following year, it was being discussed about the possibility of Belleek Manor being acquired by the state. However, it was said that he was ‘not strong about it’. Members of the Urban District Council at the time wanted the state to press ahead with the purchase of Belleek in the belief that it would bring business to the town. At the same meeting, a resolution was passed to ask the government minister to amend his decision and acquire Belleek in the interests of the county. By 1950, the estate had been sold to the Land Commission and in 1955, the issue of acquiring part of the Belleek for public use, still rumbled on.  The Land Commission proposed the sale of 20 acres of Belleek for the sum of £1,400.00 so the land could be used as a public park. The offer had an expiration period of one month and the Urban District Council would be responsible for putting up fences and maintenance.  Members of the Urban District Council felt that the price was inflated and would not be achievable on the open market. It was also the belief at the time that the Land Commission knew the Urban District Council could not accept the offer because of high rates. Previously in 1946, the Land Commission were prepared to accept an offer of £421 10s for 72 acres of land. 

In the 1950’s the manor was purchased for use as a sanatorium by the County Council, while the Land Commission and the Department of Forestry purchased most of the land that made up the estate. The interior of the castle was whitewashed, and the reception rooms now housed female patients who were suffering with tuberculosis. Several years later the manor was abandoned as a sanatorium and was briefly used as a barracks. The manor now faced an uncertain future as the County Council considered removing the roof to avoid rates and demolishing the remaining walls. By 1957, Belleek Manor was described as derelict with only 23 acres of land. There was an effort at this time to turn the manor into a nursing home, but this notion failed. It was hoped that an American millionaire might purchase Belleek and restore it in a similar fashion to what had occurred at Muckross House in Killarney. It is recorded that the main gate on Castle Road was continuously lived in until it was vacated in 1959, its condition having possibly deteriorated. 

In 1961, it was reported that Ballina Urban District Council refused to sell the main entrance gate lodge on Castle Road to Mr. Marshal Doran, a hotelier from Jersey who had recently purchased Belleek Manor, which he intended to convert into a hotel. It was argued by members of the council that the gate lodge was located beside the town park and formed its main entrance so it was thought that it should remain in the ownership of the council. The main tower of the gate lodge with its battlements is what first attracted Mr. Doran to purchase the manor. At the time of purchasing the Belleek property, Mr. Doran had hoped to acquire the main gate on Castle Road but when the sale matured, it was discovered that the transaction did not include the entrance structure. Many on the U.D.C. believed at this time that the lodge, having become derelict, should be demolished and its cut stone sold. For many, then and even today, structures such as this grandiose gate lodge were seen as symbols of oppression and exclusivity. For some their loss would not be mourned.

In recent years the lodge at Belleek has been illuminated
which shows off the true magesty of the structure.
     Copyright ICHC
By 1961, the condition of the gate lodge had become so precarious that it now concerned the members of the Urban District Council. ‘It is a scandal and a great source of reflection on the town that this fine structure was ever allowed into a dilapidated condition’ said Mr. Jack Clarke. Again Mr. Marshall Doran, the owner of Belleek Manor, put forward his offer to purchase the lodge and the adjoining land still held by the council. Mr. Doran was now in the process of converting the manor into a hotel and was concerned about the ‘fine parkland’ being developed in the vicinity of the main entrance. He stated that ‘There must be many Ballina people who would like to see this not built over and preserved in perpetuity for the town and its sporting activities’. The opinion was expressed by the council members that they should maintain ownership of the building however they would consider leasing it. The Town Clerk decided the best thing would be to permit the owner of Belleek Manor to put up a sign on the entrance gate and charge him a rental for it. The town council did not want to lease the gate lodge as there were ‘legal snags involved’.  The purchase of the land by Doran was thought by the U.D.C. to have some merit as it was a way of ‘getting out of Belleek’ which they had seen as a liability. The U.D.C. decided that they would not allow the land to fall into private hands as then they would have no control over its future development. Mr. Doran’s sole interest was to preserve the land as parkland.  By 1983, Marshall Doran enquired again to use the gate lodge and submitted a request with Ballina UDC. If the request was granted, he intended to maintain the lodge lawns, erect flag poles and provide flood lighting. He wished to use the lodge to erect advance signage for the hotel at Belleek Manor. He was clear that it would not be used for residential purposes but possibly as a museum to display artifacts he had acquired. The U.D.C. again ruled out the sale of the lodge but agreed to investigate the possibility of leasing it however this proposal was not realised.
The interior of the lodge at Belleek is long gone since it was vacated in the 1950's
     Copyright ICHC

The structure of this lodge has stood the test of time and in recent years it has been impressively illuminated at night. The most pressing issue threating its future is increased traffic flowing through its arch each day and the unchecked growth of ivy. Belleek Arch is a superb addition to the architectural heritage of the town and should be valued as such. Efforts are now being made to restore this structure and develop it for public use. Despite the residential development of the area surround the lodge in recent decades, no efforts have been made to reroute the public road and protect this structure from possible damage from traffic. Rerouting traffic would allow the structure to be developed, possibly in connection with the Landmark Trust or possibly become the museum that Marshall Doran had proposed decades before.

Brackets and sockets that once held the main gates in place are still evident 
on the structure. It is hoped that the main gates now recovered will return to
their original position.

     Copyright ICHC