Thursday, 9 March 2023

   Belgarriff House

Belgarrow, Foxford,

Co. Mayo

The saying is often bandied about ‘’ hiding in plain sight’’, but Belgarriff House near Foxford in Co. Mayo is a fine example of this adage. A house whose inhabitants once dominated Foxford town now lies forgotten and shrouded by trees and ivy.  Now a ruin, this once fine house was obliterated by the bureaucracy of the Land Commission over seventy years ago. Still referred to in the locality as Knox’s, it is another empty shell to add to the long list of properties occupied by this once dominant family. The man most associated with this house, John A. Knox, was driven by his social ambitions and lived in several fine houses during his lifetime. Some survive today but unfortunately his last home, Belgarriff in Foxford, is an ivy clad ruin with few distinguishable features. The social ambitions of John A. Knox meant that he and his young family moved numerous times between the 1870’s and 1890’s before settling in Foxford. The question must be asked, was it his choice of wife and her exclusion by the Killala branch of the Knox family that led to their choice of Belgarriff in Foxford as their eventual home? It is also possible that this exclusion led to an estrangement between John and his wife in later years. Furthermore, in the 1930’s Belgarriff was rocked by scandal, as the once lofty position of the Knox Family did little to shield them from the letter of the law when a family member, who was a clergyman, was jailed.

An earlier house on the site, Dove Hall shown on the 1829 to 1841 Map
Copyright OSI

The story of Belgarriff House, situated in the townland of Belgarrow, begins in the early 18th century when the Evans family settled in Ballinrobe, in Co. Mayo. In the 1830’s, the Evans' estate in Mayo was centred on the parish of Killasser, in the barony of Gallen. These lands may have come into the possession of the family following the marriage of Francis Evans to a daughter of John Gardiner of Farmhill.  They owned lands in the townland of Belgarrow where a predecessor of Belgarriff House stood, a house known as Dove Hall. This house situated here was leased to a Mr Strogen in the early 19th century, Dove Hall was known to be the home of Captain Strogen who was a member of the North Mayo Militia. After 1867, Dove Hall became known as Belgarriff, the then home of John Locke Evans. He was in residence in Belgarriff from July 1865 and a member of the Grand Panel of the Mayo Assizes, by July 1868 Belgarriff is the home of John Ogle Evans. It is said that a new house was built on the site in 1870, but I wonder if it is around 1867 that the new house was developed and the name of the property changed with the ownership of John Ogle Evans. This house is labelled Dove Hall on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map, however, a larger house named Belgarrow or Belgarriff House, is shown on the 25-inch edition of the 1890’s map. The house was found at the end of a long avenue that is quarter of a mile long. However, this was never meant to be a private avenue and once continued past, Belgarriff and linked in with another road. 

Belgarrow or Belgarriff House shown on the 1897 to 1913 Map
Copyright OSI

In February 1870, it is noted that Mr. John Durkan is retiring as the bailiff of the estate for Mr. Evans, the agent at this time was Mr. Mc Dermott. He had recently been appointed as the agent for the estate, he originated from Cloongee House, and his new employer was his father-in-law. By November 1871, the estate of John Ogle Evans appeared in the Landed Estates Court for sale, heavily indebted. It is possible that the construction of the new house of Belgarriff indebted John Ogle Evans to such a degree that it brought about the sale of the estate lands. Several lots were sold but the sale of the lands at Belgarrow was adjourned. In July 1873, it was advertised in the press that several lots of land belonging to John Ogle Evans would be offered for sale again, Lot 7 comprised of 475 acres in Belgarrow. In June 1874, an attempt was again made to sell lands of the Evans estate, including the lands of Belgarrow, again the sale was adjourned with the highest bid received being in the amount of £3,000. By the late 1890’s, the Evan’s family were still in residence in Belgarriff, by May 1896, an auction was held at Belgarriff House to auction furniture and the outdoor effects of Mrs. Evans. One year later, in February 1897, Eliza Evans of Belgarriff was charged with being drunk and disorderly. She was returning home from Miss Sheil’s public house in the town of Foxford when she stopped at a neighbour’s house to verbally abuse her. This drew the attention of a local member of the constabulary and led to a court appearance. Owen Devany, a servant in the employment of Mr. Evans, recalled that he had locked up the doors of the ‘’ big house at Belgarriff’’ on the evening in question. He came into town to show his employers the way home with a lantern. It is noted in this report that Eliza’s husband was John O’ Evans, who at the time was a feeble old gentleman. In another court appearance by Eliza in 1897, she stated that she had married her husband in 1891. This court case related to the seizure of a cow due to the non-payment of income tax. At this time Eliza confirmed that there was a mortgage on the estate and that there was a receiver ‘’over the property for the last four years’’. The cow was worth £18 but was seized over a debt of £3, the bailiff confirmed that it was the only thing of value on the estate. When Mr. Evans was served with the first notice for payment of the income tax, he said he could not afford to pay it. By the time of the receipt of the last notice, it was implied that the receiver would pay it. It was also noted during this court appearance that the house and the lawn were still in the possession of Evans himself, and not the Court of Chancery, however this was later disproven.  In May 1897, the demesne of John Ogle Evans known as Belgarriff was advertised for lease by J.M. Mills, The Receiver, Killala.

The possible entrance front of Belgarriff House, dating from 1867 to 1870
Copyright ICHC

Between 1897 and 1901, Belgarriff House came into the possession of John Anthony Knox. He was the son of John Knox, who died in Killala, Co. Mayo in 1874 aged 72. He is listed as being late of The Lodge in Killala, and his will was proved by his son John Anthony Knox, also of The Lodge, Killala.  John Knox was a brother of Henry A. Knox of Palmerstown and James A. Knox of Crosspatrick. He had resided for a time in a house known as Broadlands on the Killala Road, however he did not own it, it was rented from the Knox Gores. John’s son and future owner of Belgarriff, John Anthony Knox married Margaret Carroll from Ballysakeery, in Dublin in November 1875. She was the daughter of Francis Carroll who was a farmer. She was described as an ‘’excellent’ wife but due to the strict class distinction at the time, it was felt that John had married beneath him, therefore his wife was not received by local society. After initially living at The Lodge in Killala where their children were born, they moved to a nearby house, known as Ballybrooney. On the 20th of March 1876, James Annesley Knox was born, the son of John Anthony Knox and Margaret, the birth was registered in Killala. This was followed by another son on the 22nd of September 1877, when Godfrey Fitzroy Knox was born.  In October 1878, a daughter Harriett Adelaide Knox was born but unfortunately, she died in February 1884, at Ballybrooney. 

The Lodge, Killala,  where John A. Knox lived at the time of the death of his father
Copyright ICHC

She was aged only five and is recorded as being the daughter of a gentleman, she died due to diphtheria.  In February 1893, John A. Knox instructed Isaac Lenehan, Auctioneer, Ballina to dispose of his effects at his residence Ballybrooney House, Killala. It mentions in the advertisement that he is leaving ‘’this part of the country’’. John had decided that if local society would not accept his wife, he would move to Dublin and see if his social ambitions would have more success.  Unfortunately, his wife failed at charming the polite society of Dublin and became a pariah on the social circuit. Her husband’s temper ensured that he locked her out of their house on more than one occasion in disgust.  It is said that John Anthony or Johnny Knox, as he was known, was described in the Knox family as ‘not being right in the head’, which may account for his behaviour. When John A. Knox and his wife Margaret did not find Dublin society very amenable to them, they returned to Mayo and purchased Belgarriff House and estate near Foxford in Co. Mayo. As the Killala area in the 1870’s was dominated by the Knox Family, one wonders if it was John’s own family who would not accept Miss Carroll rather than those whom he described as ‘’society’’. This may have influenced his decision to move to Dublin and their eventual choice of Belgarriff in Foxford. While it was close enough to his family based near Killala, it was also far enough away.

Ballybrooney House, Killala where John A. Knox lived until 1892
Copyright ICHC

By the time of the 1901 census, John A. Knox is living in Belgarriff, aged 50, with his wife Margaret, aged 45, and their sons, James A., aged 24, and Godfrey F. aged 22. There are two female servants resident in the house, the head of the household is John A. who lists his profession as a Private Gentleman. The house is listed as having eight rooms, five windows on its entrance front and is owned by John Knox rather than being leased from the Evan’s estate. By 1903, the Knox Family were establishing themselves at Belgarriff as Mrs. Knox had placed an advertisement in the local press looking for a maid. In 1904, a herd of Hereford Cattle was commenced on the estate by John A. Knox.  The Hereford’s of Belgarriff House were known throughout the country and won numerous prizes at county shows. In 1916, it was reported in the ‘’Skibbereen Eagle’’ that John A. Knox was in possession of a very fertile cow. She produced her first calf in 1905, for the following six years she produced a calf each year, followed by four years producing twin calves, after which she produced one calf for the next three years. This amounted to 17 calves in 11 years, which John A. was proud to boast. By 1911, John and Margaret are still in residence in Belgarrow, however, their sons are no longer present. It is noted that they are married 35 years and that they had three children but only two are living. In October 1920, their son, James Annesley Knox of Belgarriff married Margaret Emily Glover of Foxford, in the Parish Church of Toomore, Co. Mayo. It is noted that he is the son of a gentleman, and she is the daughter of a Clerk of the Petty Sessions.

One of the many fireplaces of Belgarriff House
Copyright ICHC

In December 1937, John Anthony Knox died at Belgarriff with his eldest son, James, present. His death certificate lists his age as 89, but other records point to John A. being 87 at the time of his death. A headstone in nearby Craggagh Cemetery notes that John A. Knox of Belgarriff House, died 30th December 1937 aged 90. His headstone erected by his youngest son Godfrey F. Knox. John A. Knox was a widower at the time of his death, but no details are recorded for the earlier passing of his wife on this headstone. However, Margaret Knox, died in Carrowhubbuck in Enniscrone, Co. Sligo aged 78 in December 1932. Present at the time of her death was Bessie Greer, who owned Moy Salmon Lodge also known as Orme’s Lodge in Enniscrone. Margaret’s son Rev. Godfrey F. Knox was a clergyman in nearby Kilglass and this would explain his mother’s presence in a lodging house in Enniscrone. In Mullafarry Graveyard outside Killala, there is a headstone to Margaret however it states that her place of death was at her ‘’son’s residence, The Rectory, Enniscrone ‘’. One is under the impression that there was an estrangement in the family between John A. and Margaret considering that they are buried in different graveyards, miles apart. Margaret Knox, nee Carroll, obviously returned to be buried in Mullafarry as she was originally from nearby Ballsakeery. Godfrey was responsible for putting up headstones over the graves of his parents, but the wording on his mother’s memorial is more affectionate than that of his father’s. John Anthony Knox’s will was administered in London in 1938 to his son James Annesley. His estate in England amounted to £ 242.00 but was re-sworn in the amount of £ 3,485.00.

Some surviving features of the interior of Belgarriff House
Copyright ICHC

John A’s youngest son, Reverend Godfrey F. Knox of Kilglass Rectory was involved in unacceptable behaviour that would result in him being jailed for six months in 1933. One of the reasons given at the trial for his current mental state was the recent death of his mother. In 1934, it appears that Reverend Godfrey F. Knox travelled to the US after his release from prison. Two years later, Reverend Godfrey F. Knox arrived in Liverpool, England in February 1936 having departed from St. John New Brunswick in Canada. By 1939, he was living in Devon, but had adjusted the year of his birth from 1877 to 1884, however, he left the month and date the same as it appeared on his birth certificate,e which is the 22nd September. Godfrey Fitzroy Knox died in the Hotel Woodburn in Torquay in April 1957, despite being named as a clergyman, his profession is listed as a clerk. He left an estate of over £3,300 which was left to members of the Knox family at Palmerstown, Killala.

A news report from the time of Rev. Godfrey F. Knox sentencing 
Copyright ICHC

Tragedy would soon strike the remaining members of the family in Foxford, when the eldest son of John A, James Annesley Knox, died suddenly at Belgarriff House on 23rd December 1939, aged 63. James and his wife Margaret never had any children and Godfrey had never married, meaning there was no generation to take over the estate. In 1949, Belgarriff House and Demesne were advertised for sale by Mrs. Knox, James Annesley’s widow. The lands associated with the house extended to 89 acres. The house is described as having contained on the ground floor, a drawing room, dining room, breakfast room, hall, staircase, and back hall. On the floors above there were four principal bedrooms and three large attic rooms. In the rear return of the house there were storerooms, a pantry, kitchen with yard and out offices. It was noted that the house is of ‘’ fine architecture’’ and that the ground floor ceilings are 11ft high. It appears that the house did not sell so in 1951, The Minister for Lands informed the Dail that the Land Commission had instigated proceedings for the acquisition of lands in the possession of Mrs. Margaret Knox at Belgarriff, Foxford, formerly known as the Evans estate. Mrs. Knox objected to this acquisition, but her objection was disallowed, possibly because she had no one to take over what remained of the estate. Margaret Knox died on the 13th of January 1953 at Brookside, Foxford, the widow of James Annesley Knox of Belgarriff House, she was buried with him in nearby Craggagh Cemetery. The death of Margaret ,who had no direct descendants, ensured the end was nearing for Belgarriff. The contents of the house were auctioned in March 1953 which extended to a vast number of items including a baby grand piano and a half size billiard table. In February 1954, the trees that surrounded the house were sold on behalf of the Land Commission. Over 170 trees were offered for sale that would produce over 250 tons of timber. In January 1953, the Land Commission offered Belgarriff House, Foxford, for sale for demolition. In the sale advertisement, the house is simply described as a two storey, slated dwelling house with timber windows and doors etc. The out offices and even the sheds were also offered for demolition. One finds it hard to fathom the actions of the Land Commission and feels they were motivated by ignorance and vengeance. Belgarriff was a manageable size, when it was pulled down it was described as being in perfect condition. One gentleman wanted to purchase the house as a fishing lodge, but was thwarted by the Land Commission.

Advertisement for the sale of Belgarrriff House in 1949
Copyright ICHC

Today the ruin of Belgarriff endures, but one wonders for how long, as the destruction of the demolition sale is clear.  A local man told me, there was an abundance of staff that worked in the environs of the house, including a group of men who ensured Belgarriff was supplied with turf from a nearby bog. This was necessary as the house had ten fireplaces that required fuel, the house had no electricity prior to its demolition and was lit by oil lamps. It is my assertion that the new house, Belgarriff, that was built between 1867 and 1870 incorporated a portion of the original Dove Hall. The rear return appears to be older and does not have as fine stonework as the front section. The front block also had internal brick walls, some of which had twisting flues incorporated for the numerous fireplaces. The entrance front of the house is recorded as having five windows, the front door facing Nephin. There was a wide entrance hall which in turn led to a rear hall, where a dog leg staircase was illuminated by a curved headed window on the half landing. Rooms either side of the front hall included a drawing room, dining room and breakfast room, while on the first floor there were four bedrooms. From my investigations it appears that the ancillary area’s such as kitchens were accommodated in the rear return that was possibly part of the earlier house, Dove Hall.

This junction shows the different phases of construction of the house.
On the right we have the later 1867 block with the finer stonework, and
on the left, we have the rougher earlier stonework possibly of Dove Hall.
Copyright ICHC

Apart from the ruins of Belgarriff, there is one unique survivor from this house. A clock that once graced the drawing room of the Foxford mansion which remains in the possession of a local family. After the death of Margaret Knox, the clock passed to her sister, a member of the Glover Family. After her death in 1966, the contents of her home in Foxford were sold. Due to the poor state of the house at the time of the auction, only a few people could be accommodated for the sale of its contents due to the condition of the floor in the room. After the sale, the local man who had purchased the clock was approached by Major Aldridge of Mount Falcon, he wished to purchase the clock for multiples of the final bid of £2. His desire to have the clock was due to it having originated from the Knox House in Foxford known as Belgarriff. His offer was declined and today the clock is still extant. In the rear of the clock is recorded the date it was purchased, 13th August 1887 from Ganter Brothers in Dublin. This date would mean that the clock not only travelled to Belgarriff in Foxford with the Knox Family, but it also spent time in Ballybrooney House near Killala, between 1884 & 1892, before their time spent in Dublin.

A clock that originated from Belgarriff House
Copyright ICHC

To end this story, I am always amazed by the social ambitions of members of the Knox Family in Mayo in the late 19th and early 20th century.  John A. Knox was a member of a generation who thought their lifestyle and entitlement would last forever. John A. lived through a period of major change in the history of Ireland during which there was intense upheaval in the lives of the landed classes. The Land War, the Land Acts, Civil War, the foundation of the Irish State and the First World War ensured that people like John A. Knox were cast adrift in a changed nation. Gone were the days of the infallible landlord and their entitled families and no longer would the name of Knox hold sway over local politics. Like most houses of the Knox family, a few decades after John’s death, his home would be a ruin, his immediate family all dead and their way of life consigned to history.

The rear hall that accommodated the staircase of Belgarriff House
Copyright ICHC

Friday, 3 March 2023

  Monksfield House

Co. Galway

One of the most intriguing ruins that I have seen in several years is Monksfield, found in the countryside of Galway outside Loughrea. Very little is known about this house and despite days spent pouring over reference material, few facts have presented themselves in relation to the history of this house that is 235 years old. I am writing this post in the hope that others, may know and share more about this history of this unique structure. Also possibly because of its size, its apparent structural stability and the number of surviving details – a restoration could be contemplated. Please note that this house is located on private property and is not accessible to the public.

Monksfield House in Galway dates from 1788
Copyright ICHC

The Morgan family acquired the Monksfield estate during the 17th century and were Cromwellian settlers of Welsh origin. Monksfield eventually came into the ownership of the Shawe-Taylor family in the 1850’s after they had acquired an interest in the property from the Morgans. The Shawe Taylor Fmaily owned the nearby Castle Taylor Estate located near Ardrahan. Monksfield was noted as being the seat of the Reverend Henry Morgan when the house being built in 1788. A three storey over basement house, described as having neat offices and a handsome garden with orchard. Architecturally Monksfield bears a similarity in scale and style to Longfield in Co. Tipperary, a house constructed around the same period which is still in use as a private home. Another house that shared architectural similarities with Monksfield is New Park in Co. Kilkenny which burnt down in the 1930’s. It is the central projecting bay and the arrangement of the upper section that is strikingly similar. In my opinion the detailing of the door surround and windows on the central bay of Monksfield indicates the hand of a talented architect.

Longfield House in Co. Tipperary, shown left, and New Park House, which once stood in Kilkenny, shown right, both share several similarities with Monksfield in Galway

In June 1820, the wife of Charles Morgan of Monksfield died and in May 1833, Francis Morgan of Monksfield is recorded as having passed away. In 1837, it is stated that Monksfield is the seat of Captain. Morgan. In June 1854, James P. Byrne, a solicitor, married Minnie, daughter of the late Rev. Henry Morgan of Monksfield. In 1852, the estate at Monksfield appeared for sale as an Incumbered Estate by the Court of Commissioners. The sale included the house and demesne lands extending to nearly 520 acres which the Morgans were obliged to sell due to indebtedness. In July 1852, it is recorded in ‘The Galway Vindicator’ that the lands of Monksfield and the mansion house which cost £3,000 to build were to be sold. The lands of the demesne were offered with the house and a further 159 acres were offered in a second lot. The sale of both lots realised a price of £11,335 and the estate now became the residence of Thomas Shawe-Taylor. At the time of the 1901 census, the house is being lived in by Michael Tarpy and is listed as having fourteen windows in its entrance front. The house is listed as having six outbuildings and is owned by W.S. Taylor. What is interesting to note is that seven people are listed as living in only two rooms of this large house. The household consists of Michael aged 55, who is living in the house with his wife Sara, three daughters, a son, and a servant. Unfortunately, Michael Tarpy, a farmer, late of Monksfield died on the 10th July 1910 and left an estate valued at £56.

Monksfield House in Galway dates from 1788
Copyright ICHC

In 1906, it is recorded that Monksfield was owned by Walter Shawe Taylor and was valued at £14.The estate was sold to the tenants around 1908 and its lands divided. The house continued to be occupied well into the twentieth century but is now a ruin surrounded by farmland. 

Monksfield House shown on the 1829 to 1841 Map
Copyright OSI

Some information can be gleamed from old maps in the collection of the OSI. On the 1829 to 1841 Map, the house, its outbuildings and walled gardens appear to be in good repair and there is a carriage way leading to the front door. However, by the time of the 1897 to 1913 Map, the carriageway to the front of the house is not illustrated and the outbuildings to the rear no longer have roofs. Is this an indication that the fortunes of the house had changed, and its decline had begun ?. Looking at current aerial photographs, some of the walls belonging to the walled garden have survived together with the remains of some of the outbuildings. Along the main road, a single solitary cut stone gatepost survives indicating the presence of a once grand house. In April 1986, Monksfield House, described as an 18th century ruin appeared on the market with 55 acres.

Monksfield House shown on the 1897 to 1913 Map
Copyright OSI

As I have stated at the beginning of this piece, this is a fascinating house that I would be interested in learning more about, so if you wish to get in touch, my email is

Friday, 19 August 2022

 Westport House

Evaluation and Evolution

The Entrance Front of Westport House, Co. Mayo dating from 1730,
the work of the architect, Richard Castle
Copyright: ICHC

After any prolonged period of decline, the road back to robust health is a long one, evident with the continuing restoration of Westport House in Co. Mayo. After decades of ineffective repairs and compromised finances, the fabric of the house was on the brink of being beyond rescue. Water was penetrating the building through many avenues, all of which had to be quickly stemmed when the Hughes Family took over the estate in 2017. Moisture ingress was evident through the walls, around the windows, chimney stacks, leaking through damaged roof lights and overflowing from badly designed valleys. 

Photographs showing the central glazed roof light before works were completed in 2007 
and also after further works were completed in 2021 Copyright: ICHC
Photo Credit of Before Photo: DL Martin and Partners

Water was attacking the house on all sides, damaging and degrading the precious interiors designed by the best architects of their day. The house was also plagued by a lack of ventilation, damaged plasterwork, structural issues, cracking and  subsidence. It is now one year since my first visit when the house was a hive of activity and shrouded in scaffolding. I have now returned to review progress, the scaffolding is gone, the roof is complete and watertight, thus allowing the decay to be arrested and finally reversed. 

Westport House shown in above in 2019 and below 2021 Copyright: ICHC

However, there is no quick fix here, there is no 60-minute make-over for this historic house. Sodden walls and plasterwork will now be allowed time to dry out, slowly, thus leading to more issues such as cracks appearing and historic wall finishes flaking. This reaction is expected, now that the water ingress is stemmed. The next phase of works is being planned and adapted as the house is being observed and evaluated as it reacts to the changes brought about by the last phase of works. Westport House is about to undergo a transition, for years this was a country house and family home that just happened to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mayo. Now that the house is secure, in terms of its external fabric, it must now evolve. The future of this great house must now be considered in terms of accessibility, presentation and interpretation. As with any visitor attraction, it must be developed to create an immersive experience with innovative means of informing visitors about the history of the house, the Browne family and the estate. This and the continued restoration of the house is the challenge for the years ahead for the estate and its owners.

Westport House in 1912 , here we can see the Italianate gardens to the
Garden Front of the house situated below the terraces. 
Copyright: ICHC

The Entrance Front of 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 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 many similarities with its Mayo Cousin, particularly the decoration and arrangement of the main entrance door surround. For nearly 200 years after this, the Browne Family extended, adapted and changed both the house and garden. Leaving us with the great architectural legacy that is Westport House and the wider estate. 

Completed works to the roof of Westport House including a
large chimney which had to be cased inlead to ensure it is watertight.
Copyright: ICHC

As with my previous visit, I began my tour at the top of the house, on the roof, which is a changed landscape, or should I say roofscape. Gone is the scaffolding and now for the first time, probably in decades, and possibly since the house was first built, does this structure have a watertight roof. Poor detailing both historic and in the recent past have been replaced with beautiful lead flashing. Gone are unsuitable materials substituted over the years when the original owners fought as best they could to secure their home against the elements. These herculean roof repairs have brought the house back from the brink. When recent works began, it halted a process of continued decline. Poor historic detailing has contributed to a lot of the issues in the house such as masonry buttresses found along the side of some chimneys. This allowed water to penetrate into the house interior affecting the coved plaster ceilings of the bedrooms and the hallways on the upper floors. One of the larger chimney stacks, visually dominant from the garden front, had to be encased in lead to ensure it would be waterproof, it was previously plastered in sand and cement. While the original finish did nothing to keep the water out, the sand and cement layer ensured that the water remained in the structure and could not escape. This allowed water to penetrate down the back wall of the main staircase causing damage to the distinctive coved ceiling and sky light. 

Water damage over the main staircase caused by water
ingress around a chimney  Copyright: ICHC

A bedroom on the upper floor, here we can see the effects of water damage
sustained over the years from the issues with roof. Copyright: ICHC

Sixty-four chimney pots sit atop chimney stacks that populate the roofscape of Westport House. Some have been capped with aluminium caps to prevent birds from nesting in the redundant flues again. Flues to the main reception rooms have been maintained, allowing fireplaces to remain in use when necessary. All chimneys were recently cleaned, removing years of birds’ nests, twigs and other detritus. The chimney flues now provide ventilation to the interior of the house, very important in this phase of drying out. Works also included the removal of asbestos and the treatment of both wet and dry rot.

The re-engineered valleys now provided with ventilation to
ensure that the issues of the past are not re-visited Copyright: ICHC

Shallow lead valleys behind the parapet have been re-engineered, incorporating overflow pipes and additional hoppers to manage the surface water generated by the roof. The poor arrangement of these valleys in the past was responsible for some of the damage to the interiors of the house. The valleys were shallow, so if there was any build-up of water in a heavy downpour of rain, they would overflow, saturating the walls and damaging the plasterwork inside. Now that the surface water is managed more effectively, this problem should cease. Ventilation has also been improved to the substructure of these valleys, preventing the old issues from resurfacing. Previously the hot air from the interior of the house allowed moisture to condense on the underside of the lead causing the supporting ply to rot. Light wells that illuminated the inner corridors of the upper floors, where bedrooms were located, had been covered with plywood and corrugated iron. Now glazing has been reinstated, allowing these areas to be illuminated with natural light again.  

Above and Below: The completed roofscape with lead work, slating and 
glazed roof lights now in good repair. Copyright: ICHC

The estate manager noted that during the works on the roof, the original King Post Oak Trusses remain insitu and it was considered that they were possibly the work of boat builders. Urns on the front of the house have been replaced with replica’s, the originals were removed as they had degraded and were cracked into multiple pieces, held together with an outer layer of chicken wire.  Other larger urns on the corners of the parapet were temporarily removed, the corroded steel rods holding them in place were replaced with stainless steel. This ensured that they are secure in their lofty position, high above the heads of the visitors below. In all 26 tonnes of lead has ensured that the roof will remain watertight for years to come.  While works carried out ensure that the roof is watertight, works also had to be implemented to ensure that the roof would remain watertight in the future. Therefore, access for future maintenance had to be considered and a new fall arrest system has been installed. This will allow operatives to easily and safely access the roof to carry out ongoing maintenance, removing blockages from valleys etc. ensuring the problems of the past are not revisited. A system of discretely placed steps, ladders and platforms ensure that no area of the roof is inaccessible.

A relic from the Victorian past of the house,
the elevator hidden from view in the centre
of the house Copyright: ICHC

In the centre of the house is a service core that provides access to the roof. Here is a time capsule of a part of the house once utilised by the large team of servants. In Victorian times, it was probably unseen by the family or their guests. Here can be found in this top lit space, the service staircase and the mechanism of the lift that would have served the various floors of the house. The basement section of Westport House is wonderfully preserved where the vaulted kitchen and servant’s hall can be seen. A cleverly disguised dumb waiter served the Wyatt Dining Room on the floor above. Servants accessed the house via an entrance in the under croft, which is found under the terrace on the Garden Front. This access arrangement and the service staircase ensured that the bulk of the servants remained out of sight of the family. 

The entrance to the undercroft under the garden terrace which
provided access for the servants to the house Copyright: ICHC

Back staircases from the basement penetrated up into the floors above, to allow servants access to the various reception rooms and bedrooms, virtually unnoticed. These stairs were independent of the main staircase and were necessary so that the family would not meet their laundry or ashes from the many fireplaces being ferried up and down through the house by their servants.  These utilitarian back staircases, which were used constantly by the servants, kept the main marble staircase in pristine condition. The central core service stairs in Westport house is hidden by a set of beautiful etched glass doors on the upper corridor.

The vaulted kitchen area of Westport House found in the basement
Copyright: ICHC

The library wing of the house, destroyed by fire in 1826, remains unchanged but will probably house an events space at a future date. This is the one section of the house that will require a more invasive interior treatment. Here the roof requires attention, as various interventions over the years have compromised its structural integrity. The wing on the north side of the house has had its roof renewed, the balustrades around the edge had to be removed, roof timbers were replaced and covered with a new surface layer of lead.

The North Wing which has now had its roof repaired
and the balustrade repairedCopyright: ICHC

The next phase of the works will ensure that the house is accessible for all, with the establishment of circulation routes for visitors. Part of the planning process for this phase of works will consider how people interact with rooms and artefacts. This pre-planning is necessary so the integration of all necessary electrics, including task and display lighting, are incorporated. Westport House while once a grand country home is also a museum, with valuable paintings, antique furniture, rare books and artefacts on display. A heating system will have to be considered to ensure the rooms are maintained in a controlled environment, despite growing visitor numbers. The upgrading of fire prevention and suspension systems in Westport House are also being developed in tandem with the works. The recent calamitous fire suffered by Clandon Park in the UK, owned and operated by the National Trust, springs to mind. This stately home was destroyed by a fire that spread quickly and left the house in ruins.

The recent fire at Clandon Park in Surrey left the house a ruin,
hence the need for careful consideration of fire prevention at Westport House

These works are currently at the design stage and will be carefully considered. The house is being observed as visitors return to the property after the Covid lockdowns. Once these vital services are resolved, one of the final pieces of this puzzle will be repairs to the plasterwork and internal decoration.  In my innocence, I thought I would be returning to pristine interiors as issues with the roof were resolved. However, the house will take two years to dry out, which is a gradual and continual process. Walls that have been saturated for years, are slowly releasing moisture. Ventilation provided by the chimneys and the opened windows allow it to escape. This has led to its own problems, paint finishes and plasterwork on affected walls, are flaking and delaminating which is particularly evident in the Wyatt Dining Room. Therefore, this room like others in the house, are being observed by a raft of suitably qualified people who can put in place a plan for their stabilisation. 

Above: The Wyatt Dining Room with its contents returned
Below: Damage to the walls and plasterwork of the Wyatt Room
caused by water penetration Copyright: ICHC

Despite the interior of the house being a work in progress, it is beginning to look like its old self again, paintings have returned to the walls and furniture has populated the rooms. In the Chinese Room, the wallpaper has been removed for conservation, and stored onsite. The paper was removed by a specialist and his colleague over five days. This wallpaper hung on these walls for possibly 200 years and is known to have been hung sometime after 1817. This is the date that appeared on a stamp on the wallpaper found underneath : J & P Boylan, 102 Grafton Street, Dublin, 1817. Despite Westport House being situated in the West of Ireland, this room would have been very fashionable and is one of thirteen houses in the Republic of Ireland that possesses a Chinese Room. The walls of this unique space are now stripped back to its original construction, which is a great insight into how this house was constructed, laths, plaster and timber wall bracing have all been exposed. To see a space like this stripped back to its bare bones, is a must for anyone interested in historic interiors.

Above: The Chinese Room before works were undertaken in 2019 with its original
wallpaper in place which was subsequently removed for conservation
Below: The Chinese Room in 2022, the precious wallpaper was removed before
works were undertaken. This room suffered from a number of structural
issues which needed to be rectified. Copyright: ICHC

The artefacts associated with this house are also important, and one person who is passionate about these is Kathryn Connolly, Supervisor at Westport House. When touring the house with Kathryn, its objects are brought to life as she recounts stories about the provenance of each piece. In the Drawing Room, there is the dinner service on display which belonged to the Marquis of Sligo, items range from dinner plates to egg cups emblazoned with an ‘S’. Upstairs there are also on display a piece of porcelain that served the other end of the anatomy. In the sluice room, a vast range of chamber pots, foot baths and jugs are personalised in a similar fashion to the dinner service. 

Above: The chamber pots, foot baths and jugs in the Sluice Room of
Westport House, emblazoned with an S for the Marquess of Sligo
Copyright: ICHC

There are numerous items on display throughout the house, paintings and sketches by Sir John Lavery, chairs from the coronation of George V in 1911, taxidermy, old Irish silver, statuary, ancient military flags, art and antiques. Kathryn’s repository of ephemera associated with the house and the Browne family is found at the top of the house, ina room that was the bed chamber of Lord Sligo. Here are items that will eventually be on display and will tell the story of Westport House, but for the moment must be recorded, collated and archived.

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

Works have continued apace outside the house as well. The limestone steps to the main entrance have been reconstructed, the side walls have been taken down and rebuilt. The bottom four runs of steps had become unstable and required re-alignment.  All works to the house have been non-invasive, unnoticeable to the untrained eye. The steps do not appear over restored and wonderful natural planting on either side, ensures the illusion is kept intact, that they have not been touched. On the garden front, the concrete terraces dating from 1914/1915 are renewed, again the mantra of replacing where only necessary has been upheld. Repairs to the concrete detailing and the installation of limestone steps ensures that this dramatic outdoor space, leading down to the water’s edge, has been retained. Over the decades the steps had been affected by subsidence and sections had become unstable. It was necessary that the area was deconstructed, foundations improved, and the area rebuilt. 

Above: The terrace on the Garden Front of Westport House which
has been subject to restoration and consolidation which included
works to the Summer Pavilion. Copyright: ICHC

The summer pavilion located at one end of the terrace is pristine, having been in a serious state of decay during my visit in 2021. It was composed of an early form of reinforced concrete, which was failing, and the structure was so fragile it had to be cordoned off until works could commence. Enabling works have also been completed around the property, including the provision of service ducting which will allow for the future installation of external lighting and services. The surface water management system and the sewage system have also been upgraded in anticipation of the next phase of works to be completed. Once the house is consolidated, further phases will concentrate on the wider estate including the re-establishment of the Italianate Garden and the development of the nearby coach house.  This project is a wonder to see, the conservation, adaption and restoration of Westport House will ensure it continues to be a wonderful resource for future generations.  I look forward to another visit, to record the continued development and evolution of this unique piece of Mayo’s architectural heritage.