Saturday, 28 September 2013

The car in the picture, a Wolseley Siddeley has an association with Lissadell in Co. Sligo The car was purchased new in 1910 by Sir Joscelyn Gore-Booth, the brother of Countess Markievicz. At this time when one purchased a car, it was necessary that you employed a chauffeur to drive it, so the family felt that Pat Kilfeather came with the car.  The car was used by the family up until 1939 when it was sold. The car eventually ended up in the Motor Museum in Cork until it was sold in 2006 for €46,000.

Possible Portrait of Joscelyn Gore Booth by Sarah Purser (Image Copyright - Adams Auctioneers)
Lissadell House in Sligo the former home of the Gore Booths (Image Copyright- David Hicks)

Saturday, 7 September 2013


Kilruddery House
Co. Wicklow

The Meath’s have owned Kilruddery since 1618 when the first Earl of Meath was granted the property however the original house was destroyed in 1645 and was eventually reconstructed by the second Earl. The seventeenth century house was a modest and simple looking house which faced east, was two storey’s with a dormer attic, and had twin gables either side of the front door. Much of what is left of the house that we see today comes from the rebuilding that the tenth Earl, John Chambre Brabazon, instigated as he was concerned that his existing house at that time  was becoming  “ a very uninteresting residence” and was no longer good enough for ‘the residence  of a nobleman of taste and fortune’. The architect Richard Morrison and his son Vitruvius were employed to rebuild the house in a fashion that would reflect the tenth Earls position in society. That was not before Francis Johnston proposed an unusual Gothic creation which was never realised. The improvements to the 17th century house would be designed and built in the style of an “Elizabethan Chateau” and in 1820 a detailed estimate was drawn up to carry out works on the existing house. The building work continued on for nine years around Lord and Lady Meath who remained in residence and allowed the work to carry on around them. It appeared to family members that the improvements chased them around the house, as when the builder began work on one section of the house, they moved to another. Many craftspeople were employed to create the Meath’s new home, chimneypieces were ordered from Italy in 1816, together with rolls of crimson damask to decorate the large drawing room. The Morrison makeover was completed by 1824 and was said to have cost £20,000.00. However the remodelling of the house was only sufficient until 1827 when the family who were said to be inspired by the purchase of furniture from Paris called in Matthew Wyatt Jnr. to enhance the interior of the house even further with some “Louis Revival” touches. Daniel Robertson who was working at Powerscourt “next door” was commissioned also by the tenth Earl to make numerous improvements.

While the seventeenth century house may no longer be visible behind the improvements that took place under Morrison one element of the house from this period that did survive were the gardens.  The avenues of trees, statuary, ponds and fountains are still visible today.

The Garden Front of Kilrudery in its original state before the demolition of two thirds of the house in the 1950's.
 ( Copyright National Library of Ireland)

Between 1953 and 1956 the 14th Earl demolished about two thirds of the house as a result of dry rot and the magnificent entrance front seen in the pictures here in this book was lost. The Entrance Hall, the Great Hall and the dining room were reduced to rubble.  The Honourable Claude Phillimore was the architect responsible for this restructuring, despite that this act is seen by some as architectural vandalism, it was at the time thought necessary. Kilruddery was more fortunate then the fate that befell Rossmore Castle in Monaghan which was rendered uninhabitable by dry rot and had to be abandoned by the family.  Kilruddery was reorganised into a more manageable size, original features were numbered, salvaged and reused where possible.

Today the remaining Garden Front that has survived
( Copyright Elspeth Ross)

 Another reason for the reduction of the size of the house was to make it more manageable and also the possibility that the family wouldn’t have to bankrupt themselves trying to heat and maintain this immense building. The house we see today looks unchanged when viewed from the garden at certain angles, however it is the entrance front that has lost it dramatic appearance when viewed and approached from the avenue. The new entrance front was built on the same axis as its predecessor by Morrison however it now stands further back.

The Entrance Front was far more impressive before all this was dismantled
( Copyright National Library of Ireland)

The Entrance Front today has been remodeled but is not as impressive as the original approach
 ( Copyright Elspeth Ross)

It was during the 1850’s that adding a sunroom or garden room to a house became popular, it was usually done to enlarge an existing drawing room and to provide more entertaining space. So in 1852 William Burn, the Scottish architect, was asked to design a conservatory for Kilruddery and was said to have been inspired by a tiara belonging to Lady Meath that he replicated its shape in the parapet the surrounds the glass roof which can be seen in the above picture.

It is said that Lady Meath disposed of the tiara to help the poor however many cynics believe that it became necessary for her to relieve herself of the tiara in order to pay for the conservatory that was inspired by it. The conservatory was originally used as an orangery however it eventually became a suitable place to display the tenth Earl’s collection of marble statues.

By 1921 the conservatory, once seen as the ultimate status symbol was now becoming a drain on the family resources. In September of that year the Earl gathered together the workforce on the estate and told them that as result of his financial concerns he had no other choice but the close the conservatory, the other hot houses, pleasure gardens and his kitchen. This Earl enlightened the assembled people that he had not married for money but whatever means his wife had, reverted to her family when she died in 1918 due to the conditions of her father’s will.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Menlough Castle

Menlough Castle
 Co. Galway


(Above) The ancient ancestral home of the Blake Family 
located on the banks of the River Corrib in Galway and below 
the ruin of the castle today after the fire in 1910.
Picture from the National Library of Ireland

For me, Menlough Castle in Co. Galway is the real-life embodiment of the fictional country house, Manderley, destroyed by fire in the novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Like Manderley, Menlough is an ancient structure added to by generations of one family, in this instance, the Blake’s of Galway. The ancient castle on the left bank of the River Corrib was built in 1569 and was the ancestral home of the Blake family until July 1910, when it was destroyed by fire. The old castle formed part of a building comprising of many different periods, situated about a mile from the city of Galway. A pier wall extended for about one hundred yards along the river in front of the castle, upon which once sat a small cannon and a telescope. Located here for the detection of approaching intruders in times past. In 1910, Menlough Castle was the home of Sir Valentine Blake, the 14th Baronet, his wife and their invalid daughter Miss Eleanor Blake. In July of that year, Sir Valentine and Lady Blake travelled to Dublin for a number of days as Sir Valentine was undergoing an operation. At this time, Menlough was said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited castles in Ireland. It’s paneled reception rooms contained numerous paintings, tapestries and various heirlooms of the ancient family. All the rooms of the castle were sumptuously furnished, wainscoted with black oak and the impressive central staircase was made from the same material. On the fateful night in 1910, a fire broke out on the suite of rooms on the upper floors occupied by Miss Blake. She could not escape because of a disability. The only other persons on the premises were the coachman James Kirwan and two servants Miss Browne and Miss Earley.

The castle, the morning after the fire

James Kirwan was awakened at 5.40 am on the morning of the fire by the screams of the two female servants. He was sleeping in a bedroom located over the hall door and when trying to make his escape he was met with flames and blinding smoke. Realising his escape by the staircase was impossible he exited by the window and lowered himself to the ground fifty feet below using the thick ivy that grew on the façade of the building. On reaching the ground with some difficulty, he could now see that the whole castle was ablaze. Large plumes of smoke were pouring from all the windows on the river front of the castle. When Kirwan raced to the rear of the castle, he saw the unfortunate sight of the two servant girls trapped on the roof screaming for someone to save them. When the fire broke out, the maids escaped on to the roof of the castle through a skylight when they found their escape route cut off by fire and smoke. Kirwan rushed to the gate lodge to get help and eventually procured a ladder which was found to be twelve to fifteen feet short of reaching the women nearly four floors up. Bundles of hay were placed on the ground and the girls were urged to jump. Miss Earley jumped but was killed, Miss Browne fared better however she was still in a terrible state and conveyed to the County Hospital. Despite the best efforts of various fire appliances there was no hope of saving Miss Blake or the castle which was a complete inferno. Eventually the roof and floors collapsed, crashing down into the basement of the castle below. As Miss Blake’s remains were never recovered a Memorial Service was held in St. Nicholas’s Church in the city which was attended by a large congregation. The Blake Family was represented by Mr Thomas Blake, the brother of Miss Blake; her parents were unable to attend. As the memorial service took place, the remains of the castle were still smouldering and debris lay seven to eight feet high. Despite the intense heat the search continued for Miss Blake’s body, this search was in vain and today a memorial still exists in the grounds of the ruined castle remembering her loss.

The entrance front of Menlough Castle shown as it was before 1910 ( above)
and as the ivy covered ruin that exists today ( below)

The surviving maid who jumped from the roof of the castle on the night of the fire was Miss Mary Anne Browne. She sued her employers under the Employers Liability Act as she had suffered severe injuries after her forty-foot jump. She still suffered from partial paralysis and doctors could not confirm if this would be permanent. Sir Valentine Blake had great sympathy for her situation, but as the fire was an accident, he declared that he was not responsible. The judge presiding over the trial agreed and her case was dismissed together with a subsequent appeal. A relative of the unfortunate maid who was killed when she jumped from the roof of the castle tried to sue Sir Valentine for her loss. The case was also dismissed as the relative could not be classed as a dependent of the deceased. Two years after the fire, Sir Valentine Blake died at Longford Terrace, Monkstown, Co. Dublin. He was 76 and had succeeded to his title in 1875. He had been the Justice of the Peace for County Galway and in 1872 acted as High Sheriff for the county. He was succeeded by his son Mr Thomas Patrick Ulick John Harvey Blake. When Sir Valentine was buried there was a large police presence which ensured the event passed peacefully. This was necessary as when Sir Valentine’s father died in 1875, the man who was a Catholic was buried as a Protestant. This did not sit well with the mainly Catholic tenantry around Menlough. A riot broke out at the funeral and several people received prison sentences. In recent years a local businessman proposed to restore the castle and grounds retaining the upper floors of the building for his own personal use. He had proposed to invest over € 12 million in the project which was supported by many, however the economic downturn ensured that the project was mothballed. 

The monument erected in the grounds of Menlough Castle to remember Miss Blake who was lost in the fire in 1910. The remains of the home in which she lost her life can be seen in the background.
The Memorial states the following:
To the memory of
Eleanor Camilla Eliza Blake,
Who perished in the disastrous fire at Menlo Castle,
July 26th 1910, aged 45 years,
this memorial is affectionately dedicated by her loving brother,
T.P. Blake.
Thy will be done.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Moydrum Castle
Co. West Meath
The Unforgettable Fire 

The 1984, U2 album cover of the “Unforgettable Fire” which featured the iconic image of the castle.

Accreditation-  Copyright Universal Island Records Limited

Moydrum Castle stands near the small village of Ballylin outside Athlone in County Westmeath. This dramatic ruin has become a site of pilgrimage for fans of the band U2, since this building was featured on their ‘Unforgettable Fire’ album cover in 1984. The title of this album aptly describes how this now ivy covered hulk met its end in a conflagration of epic proportions in 1921. Today a lot of Moydrum Castle’s architectural detail is obscured by ivy which is also threatening the structural integrity of this building.   Modern houses have grown up around the demesne and a public road passes very close to what remains of the castle. The walled gardens and other outbuildings to the rear of the main structure are being reused and adapted to suit alternative modern uses. The derelict remains of Moydrum Castle are a sad reminder of the passive nature that is adopted in regard to the preservation of historical and culturally significant buildings such as this. The area immediately around the castle is out of bounds to the general public and over zealous U2 fans. Their scrawled tributes on the gate entering the castle’s curtilage are a sad reminder of what an untapped resource this building is for the local community.

 This photograph from the 1900s shows the garden front elevation of the castle that faced the lake in the vast landscaped grounds. The windows on this elevation had regular sash windows topped with hood mouldings.
Accreditation- The National Library of Ireland

The story of this building begins with William Handcock who was an M.P. for Athlone, who was created Baron Castlemaine in 1812 for his support for the Act of Union. In that same year in recognition of his new position in society he employed the leading architect, Richard Morrison, to design a castle in the Gothic Revival style. The building was essentially a two-storey, over basement castellated country house which was completed in 1814. It incorporated an earlier house that existed on the site from 1750 which had been described as an ordinary farmhouse with inconvenient interior arrangements. The completed castle had a battlemented entrance tower with two slender polygonal turrets on either side of the large entrance door. The entrance front was asymmetrical with a polygonal tower at one end and a square tower at the opposite corner. The windows of the front elevation had Gothic tracery while those on the side of the castle that over looked the garden had regular square headed sash windows. Over the front door there was balcony which could be accessed by a French door in an elaborate church-like window.  While the exterior of the castle was Gothic in style, the interior was classical and was described as being similar to Borris House in County Carlow. There were a substantial quantity of farm buildings and gardens to the rear of the castle which were necessary to service a building of this size. The castle had an extensive complex of twenty seven outbuildings and many local people from the surrounding townlands were employed in various parts of the estate. Morrison was also engaged to design a hunting lodge on Hare Island which was a retreat for Baron Castlemaine and allowed him the opportunity to engage in fishing, shooting and boating on Lough Ree. A set of imposing gates and an adjoining lodge provided access to the demesne and the road that winds through the estate is still used today. After travelling through the entrance gates, the road divided in two, one road led to the front of the house while the other diverged and led to the servant’s entrance at the rear. Those lucky enough to be guests of the Castlemaine’s travelled through the landscaped parkland and over a little bridge that spanned a lake to the right of the castles entrance front.

The entrance front of Moydrum Castle in the early 1900s which was home to five generations of Barons Castlemaine. The entrance door is surmounted by a gothic stone tracery fanlight and a first floor window with a balcony.
Accreditation- The National Library of Ireland

 The first Baron Castlemaine met an untimely end in 1839 when he fell out of his first floor bedroom window of the castle during a storm. As he had no children, the title and estate passed to his brother Richard. The second Baron Castlemaine did not enjoy the fruits of his new title for long, as one year later in 1840 he died in Dublin. He was then succeeded by his son, also named Richard, who was now styled the third Baron Castlemaine. Further problems were experienced by the family in 1840 when Moydrum Castle caught fire. An unattended candle in Lady Castlemaine's bedroom caused the blaze after it fell into a turf bucket. This was one of three fires that were to occur during the lifetime of the castle which seemed destined to burn down. In order to reduce the pain and suffering of the tenants on the estate during the famine in the 1840s, a number of building projects were undertaken as a form of famine relief.  These projects included the construction of a private family church, new entrance gates, farm buildings and an eight foot wall that enclosed the demesne. In 1859, the third Baron Castlemaine received six proposals from the architect William George Murray for a Tudor Gothic entrance gate and lodge but these were never executed. In 1869 the third Baron Castlemaine died and his son became the fourth Baron Castlemaine. Both of these Barons did not treat their tenants well and were considered tyrants and a lot of public resentment existed locally against them. Possibly to appease local sentiment, the fourth Baron instigated a number of works centred on Moydrum church. A plaque on the gable of this building records that the entrance porch was erected by the fourth Baron in 1876. From 1886 onwards the fourth Baron began to sell off the lands of the estate under the Land Purchase Acts. In just over twenty years, the Handcocks had reduced their land holding from 12,041 acres to just 550 acres. 
Richard Handcock, 4th Baron Castlemaine
by Frederick Sargent, sketch in pencil, 1870's

Both the fourth Baron Castlemaine and his wife died in 1892 and the Moydrum estate passed to their son Albert Edward Handcock now the fifth Baron Castlemaine. As Albert had received a substantial inheritance from his father together with Moydrum, he led a life of leisure as a country gentleman. He married Annie Evelyn Barrington from Kent in 1895 and after their marriage they returned to set up home in Moydrum. Two years later they were blessed with their one and only child, a daughter who they named Evelyn Constance. In the 1901 census the castle is described as having thirty-four rooms and nineteen windows across its entrance front. In residence at this time are the 38 year old, Baron Castlemaine, his wife aged 27, his daughter aged 3 and their ten servants. By 1911 the Castlemaine’s are still living in Moydrum and their retinue of servants now includes a German butler.

Today the ruin of Moydrum Castle is obscured by ivy that covers the beautiful architectural detail of its façade. The castle was destroyed in a deliberate arson attack in 1921 that ended the connection of the Handcock family with their ancestral seat in County West Meath.
Accreditation- Photograph by David Hicks

Lord and Lady Castlemaine were very active in social circles and were often mentioned attending numerous balls and events. Many of these events included mixing in royal circles which would explain the visit of the Duke of Connaught to Moydrum in August 1905. His Royal Highness arrived in Athlone on the 7.15 train from Dublin and was met at the station by Lord Castlemaine. The entourage then proceeded to Moydrum Castle in a procession of motor cars. After a brief sojourn they drove all round Lough Ree showing Queen Victoria’s son the local sights. In the evening the Duke of Connaught returned to Moydrum Castle where he dined with Lord and Lady Castlemaine. He eventually left by motor car for Shannonbridge to witness the successful crossing of the river by the advanced party of the Red Army. In April 1909, Lord and Lady Castlemaine who had been spending the winter at Marlay Grange in Dublin returned to Westmeath. An enthusiastic welcome was given to the Castlemaine’s arrival at their family’s ancestral seat after a protracted absence. His lordship, accompanied by Lady Castlemaine and their daughter, the Hon. Evelyn Handcock arrived from Dublin by the afternoon train and drove immediately to their home. As they reached the Moydrum gates, lusty cheers were raised by their tenants while a local band played stirring music and bonfires were lit. It appeared that the animosity of earlier years had dissipated and that the Castlemaine’s were now much loved by their tenants.

A ruinous fire eventually sealed the fate of Moydrum but the castle had avoided disaster by the same incident previously in 1840 & 1912. An account of the 1912 fire was featured in the national press which explained that paintings and antiques to the value of £1,000 were destroyed in the blaze that nearly claimed the life of Lady Castlemaine. Lord and Lady Castlemaine were in residence in the castle, when a fire began to fill the interior with smoke which awoke the household. Lady Castlemaine and the servants made their escape from the burning building by placing wet towels over their heads. The fire was quickly brought under control by the servants who saved the entire building from being gutted. The Castlemaine’s leased a house in Foxrock in Dublin while repairs and renovations were being carried out the castle in the aftermath of the blaze. Another strange incident to take place in Moydrum that was also featured in the national press highlighted the hatred that was beginning to boil over against the local landlord. On November 15, 1913 at 7.30pm a gun was discharged through the window of the drawing room of the castle. The window shattered and shot grains were found embedded in furniture at the far end of the room which smashed some of the china on the sideboard. Lady Castlemaine was in the castle at the time and both she and the servants were shocked by the incident. For the next number of years the Castlemaine’s appeared to spend the winter months in Foxrock in Dublin and the remainder of the year was divided between Moydrum, London and Europe. By 1919, a worrying trend was developing in Ireland; the grand homes of the local gentry were being burnt down in order that the lands of the estate would be broken up. The Castlemaine’s were not initially concerned but as more and more houses were burnt; they thought it prudent to return to Westmeath. The fifth Baron was under the mistaken belief, that if he and his family were in residence it would ward off any attackers looking to take advantage of an empty house. In March 1921, Lord and Lady Castlemaine left Cannes in France where they had spent the winter. Lord Castlemaine returned firstly to Moydrum Castle and was joined shortly after by his wife who had spent some time in London Around this time, the house burnings in Ireland had become more sporadic and it was thought that the threat to Moydrum had lessened considerable. Now that Lord Castlemaine suspected that Moydrum was no longer a target for attackers he left for London and Scotland in mid June 1921. A further indication that he was not concerned with any threat to Moydrum was illustrated by the fact that he left his wife and daughter behind, convinced of their safety. However Lord Castlemaine’s home had become a target, as he was seen as a member of the British establishment, he was a member of the House of Lords, British officers had often stayed in Moydrum Castle and Lord Castlemaine had previously dismissed men from his employment that would not join the British army.

Moydrum Church is located not far from the castle and bears a plaque that states the entrance porch was erected by the fourth Baron Castlemaine in 1876. The main block of the church was built in the 1840s as one of the famine relief projects. Despite its small size, this church has many beautiful architectural features and was used by the Handcock family as their private family place of worship.
Accreditation- Photograph by David Hicks

On July 3, 1921, armed men gathered in the castle grounds at 3.30 am on the Sunday morning and surrounded the building. Present in the castle was Lady Castlemaine, her daughter and eight servants. After a loud knocking at the door, her ladyship looked out her bedroom window where she seen about sixty men outside with revolvers. As their knocks went unanswered, they smashed through the ground floor windows and made their way up the stairs. Before they reached her bed chamber they encountered a frightened Lady Castlemaine on the landing. She was given five minutes to leave the castle as the intruders intended to burn it to the ground.  They said that they were burning her home as a reprisal for the recent burnings at Coosan and Mount Temple by the Black and Tans. They had procured paraffin from the Castlemaine’s chauffeur and proceeded to move through the building, moving furniture in to piles in the center of the rooms and dousing it with the paraffin. Every method was used to accelerate the forthcoming flames, all the windows were opened and holes were punched in the ceiling and roof to create a draught. As the raiders were doing their destructive work, Lady Castlemaine and the servants set about removing personal belongings and the family silver, trying to save what they could. The servants were rounded up by the raiders and two armchairs were placed on the lawn in front of the castle for Lady Castlemaine and her daughter to view the destruction of their home. In anticipation of the fire, the leader of the raiders addressed Lady Castlemaine as to why her home was being burnt. Once the fire had taken hold and the castle could not be saved, the raiders dispersed. By the time authorities arrived, the castle was a blaze and nothing remained but the walls by the following morning. The damage was estimated at £120,000 and the majority of paintings, antiques, silver and jewelry had been lost. Lord Castlemaine quickly returned from London to view the blackened ruins of his castle. Upon his return he organized a cleanup operation, while he pondered what to do with the ruins of the castle and the remaining lands of the estate. One week later, he sent Lady Castlemaine and their daughter to London to recover from their terrible ordeal. In the month after the fire, a story appeared in The Irish Times that inferred that some of the servants had used the fire to steal items from the castle. Michael Grady and Patrick Delany pleaded guilty to a charge of having stolen an eclectic number of items from Moydrum on the night of the fire. These items included a fur coat, two dress shirts, a smoking jacket, a suit case, a bicycle and other articles that were the property of Lord Castlemaine. Grady was a Butler and Delany was a footman and both had worked in the castle. When the fire broke out, Delany reported the matter to the military and both he and Grady saved a considerable amount of valuable property and gave assistance to fight the fire. After the military had left, the men took away some of the aforementioned articles. After the fire they were unemployed and traveled to Dublin in search of work. While in the city they were badly in need of money, pawned the coat and this is how they came to be arrested. Grady was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour and Delany who was under 21 years of age received four months imprisonment with hard labour.

In October 1921, £101,359 was awarded by Judge Fleming in Athlone to Lord Castlemaine for the destruction of his castle, furniture and personal belongings. In March 1922, a dispersal sale of the Moydrum farmyard equipment was advertised and in 1924, the remaining land of the estate was sold to the Land Commission. After the fire, Baron Castlemaine and his wife went to live at Langham House in Surrey, paying only occasional visits to Athlone where Lord Castlemaine’s brother still acted as his agent. On his death in the 1930s, the title and estates passed to his brother Robert Handcock. The castle languished in obscurity for decades until it played host to U2 in 1984.  A number of photographs that were taken at the time and the iconic image of the front of the castle appeared on the album sleeve of the ‘Unforgettable Fire’. Over the years, many fans from all over the world have scoured the Westmeath county side to find this enigmatic building that now sits silent and bears little testament to the tumultuous events that occurred here.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Mansions of ‘The Great Gatsby’


 The Gatsby Mansion as it appears in the 2013 film

This week seen the release of Baz Luhrmann’s new and reimagined version of the ‘The Great Gatsby’.  Well, Mr Luhrmann is certainly a great artist but possibly not a great director. His wife, Catherine Martin who was the Production Designer has done another wonderful job but I have to admit I felt the whole affair felt a bit flat. The reliance on special effects and the use of the green screen made their interpretation of the world of Gatsby feel highly artificial. In the novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the mansions of Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are located in the privileged fictional hamlets of “East Egg” and “West Egg”. These sprawling mansions are located directly across the bay from each other on Long Island, New York. However the bay separated two similar but completely different worlds. East Egg is considered “old money” territory for the likes of Daisy Buchanan and her continuously unfaithful husband Tom, whilst newly rich Jay Gatsby’s home is in West Egg which is considered the land of the nouveau riche.
The Gatsby mansion depicted in this new film is an awesome creation however one can tell from the start that it isn’t a real house. Despite the best efforts of the graphics department you are never truly convinced that this building could have existed. The exterior of the Gatsby mansion in reality was a section of a disused seminary near Sydney, where as you can see from the photos, this building took a lot of computer trickery to transform it in to what we see on screen. One wonders what was the thinking behind the selection of this location? it looks nothing like the final building that we see on screen.

 The building in Sydney that used as the setting for the Gatsby mansion


 The disused Seminary was dressed with Ivy to help transform it into a mansion from the 1920's

For the exterior shots of Gatsby’s estate, the Gothic Revival building of the former St. Patrick’s Seminary in Sydney had faux ivy applied to the first two floors and a temporary fountain constructed in the courtyard; plus, in postproduction, soaring turrets were added digitally. This technique was used as the production was filmed in Australia which would not have the same ostentatious 1920’s architectural heritage which would survive in the United States. It is sad that they didn’t use Oheka Castle in the US which appears to have been purpose built as the film set for this film.

The wondeful Oheka Castle in the United States which would have made a wonderful setting for the Gatsby mansion


A financier and philanthropist Otto Hermann Kahn built Oheka Castle in the middle of a 443 acre plot on the highest point on Long Island in Cold Spring Harbour, for an estimated cost of $11 million dollars ($110 million dollars in today’s currency). At the time of its construction, the French-style chateau was, and still is today, the second-largest private residence ever built in America. During the Gilded Age of the 1920’s, Kahn used the 109,000 square foot, 127 room estate as a summer home where he hosted lavish parties and regularly entertained royalty, heads of state, and Hollywood stars. This mansion which still survives today is now a popular wedding venue and hotel would have been the perfect setting for the film and would have lent the production the touch of authenticity it lacks.

This mansion and its wonderful gardens would have needed little computer manipulation

All the sets seems overblown and lacking credibility, for all the talk about the size and grandeur of the Gatsby mansion we actually see very little of its interior.  Catherine Martin, the Production Designer, oversaw the 42 individual sets which were created in and around Sydney, both on location and on soundstages. It took her team 14 weeks just to build, paint, and decorate Gatsby’s mansion, which called for a grand ballroom, library, master bedroom, entrance hall, and terrace, as well as a garden.

Beacon Towers which was the inspiration for the mansion in the book and the current film


The inspiration for the house in the novel and this year’s film was Beacon Towers, a fantastical house which was demolished in the 1940s. One of the most amazing mansions ever built on Long Island was the residence of William K. Vanderbilt, Jr's mother, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. One can see the influence of this building on the mansion that we see on the screen however it appears the terrace and gardens came from Oheka.

The Buchanan Mansion as it appears in the film


Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s love interest lives across the bay in another architectural monstrosity, which despite being described as ‘old money’ the mansion looks in the 2013 movie that most of the furnishing and props, were purchased yesterday. Yet another opportunity was lost as surely there must be an elaborate mansion somewhere that could have stood in for the Buchanan homestead. Again the architecture of this house is so exaggerated and smacks of a computer generated model that its tests the gullibility of the viewer. The house is depicted as Georgian redbrick manor with a monstrous portico and curved side wings. Again the Production Design department’s inspiration was a house called Westbury Gardens in New York which obviously wasn’t grandiose enough to be used in the film.   

Westbury Gardens in the US which have provided a more suitable and realistic backdrop

The real house that inspired the Buchanan home was demolished in 2011 and as you can see from the pictures the real house was a simpler affair. ‘Land’s End’, the grand colonial mansion was torn down as it cost $4,500 each day to maintain the estate built in 1902. Ironically it was demolished as a former millionaire, made poor by Bernie Madoff, who could no longer afford to pay the taxes on the property.

Lands End which was the real inspiration for Daisy's home

The fate of the mansion and the wealth of its owners bears a resemblance to the Wall Street crash that would bring the curtain down on the extravagance of the 1920’s. With a reported budget of over $100 million it is a shame that some of this money wasn’t used on plane tickets to shoot the film on location in the United States.

  However Lands End is no more as it was demolished in 2011

Sunday, 12 May 2013


Firstly let me say there is a wonderful book in this story and I’d love to be the person to work on it, if not write it. This may be the account of a locked apartment full of dusty possessions but when the story behind them is told that is where their true value lies. There is definitely a film script in the bones of this story of a long lost masterpiece and a love story. Many of us dream of finding a long lost masterpiece but imagine opening the door of an apartment that nobody else had stepped in to in over seventy years. Here stacked and covered in dust were personal items, furniture and works of art, left as their owner fled Paris in fear of the approaching Nazi's. Among the dust covered belongings was a long lost work by the 19th century Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. The lady in the painting was a muse of the artist and the grandmother of the lady who left the apartment as a time capsule in 1941. For whatever reason she kept the apartment locked despite living in the South of France until her death in 2010 at 91.
The work of art that sold for £1.78million
The apartment was the home of Marthe de Florian who was the lady in the painting, at the time of the Second World War it was locked by her granddaughter and left untouched. It passed through various generations of the family who were aware of its existence and kept up the payments of taxes on the property but decided to leave it as it was. Items such as a dusty stuffed ostrich and a Mickey use toy dating from before the war, all add to this remarkable story. Eventually when the lady who had locked the apartment in 1941 died in 2010 her heirs decided the time had come to break the spell and disturb the slumber of the Paris home.
Boldini who created the masterpiece
There was no initial record of the painting of Marthe de Florian  but a calling card was found with a scribbled love note from Boldini. This led to a reference to the work in a book by the artist's widow, which said it, was painted in 1898 when Miss de Florian was 24. The starting price for the painting when it was placed in an auction seeking offers for around £253,000. However the historic work with the interesting provenance finally sold for £1.78million, a world record for the artist.
The dining room of the apartment which was left untouched in the 1940's
I feel when you see the pictures of the apartment in its original state that it was a shame that it was disturbed, broken up and items sold. I would prefer that it was cataloged and displayed in a museum something similar to the Francis Bacon exhibit in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. At least in that guise every one could experience a little of the magic of finding this sleeping beauty.

The poignant dusty possessions left behind

Sunday, 28 April 2013



Mount Congreve Gardens in Waterford



Another day and yet another story of a house that is closed as a result of the State and solicitors getting involved.  The gardens of the Mount Congreve Estate in Waterford extend to over 70 acres and contain 3,000 varieties of rhododendrons, four acres of walled gardens and glasshouses.  However this jewel in the crown of Waterford Tourism is now closed due to a dispute that has developed between the OPW and the Mount Congreve Estate. Again like the situation that occurred at Lissadell, self-sustaining employment was compromised as 12 gardeners jobs are left in doubt. Ambrose Congreve, a banker who inherited the house in 1969 died two years ago aged 104.  The contents of the house were sold last year for €2.2 million.


However the estate won’t pass fully into State ownership for another 19 years and as a result they won’t foot the bill for the €400,000 annual running costs. While Id admit this is a large amount of money, in time, if managed properly the estate and its marvellous grounds could become self-sustaining and less reliant on cash from the exchequer. This why I still uphold the opinion, as I always have, that the state and county councils should have nothing to do with historic properties such as country houses. Again and again it has been debated about a National Trust style management model to be introduced in Ireland, if this was done and managed by competent and committed individuals, revenue streams could be identified for each of these unique properties to make them self-sustaining.  Also if this building and its gardens are left in limbo for 19 years, it will certainly cost a lot more money to restore them and as always in these situations large amount of original material will be lost.

Mount Congreve is an 18th century Georgian Mansion near Kilmeaden in Co. Waterford on the banks of the River Suir. It was designed by the architect John Roberts who also designed both Catherdrals in Waterford and Moore Hall in Co. Mayo.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Paintings from Kenmare House Stolen!

A major investigation involving gardaí and UK police is underway after early 19th Century paintings belonging to the Killarney House estate were stolen from private storage, sold in the UK and put on public auction in Dublin.
Imagine my surprise  when reading The Irish ndependent today that two paintings from Killarney and Kenmare House have been stolen. I was even more surprised to find out that these portraits had been featured in an auction that I had attended at Slane Castle last October. I remembered looking at these wonderful paintings in the drawing room which were painted by Hugh Douglas Hamilton. They were valued at between €20,000 and €30,000 but were withdrawn after concerns were raised.
The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has responsibility for the items and this week confirmed that they are helping gardaí with investigations following the loss of "a number of items". Asked if further items from the Killarney collection had been stolen, department officials made no comment but stated that inventory of all items in storage and a review of procedures is currently underway.
HUGH DOUGLAS HAMILTON (1740-1808) A pair of portraits, bust length, of Valentine Browne (1754-1812), 1st Earl of Kenmare (above), wearing a black coat, yellow waistcoat, and stock collar; and his second wife, Mary Aylmer (below) of Lyons, Co Kildare, d.1806 (m.1775) of Lyons, Co. Kildare; painted 1801-2 Oil on canvas, each 74 x 62cm
Of the many beautiful photographs of wondrous houses that I have viewed during the compilation of my book, none compare to the extraordinary architectural creation that was Killarney House in County Kerry. Both it and its predecessor, Kenmare House, were once the seats of the Browne family who dominated the town of Killarney and its hinterland for generations. After a catastrophic fire in 1913, virtually nothing remains of the colossus that once stood on a hill overlooking the town. The main block of the earlier, Kenmare House has shared a similar fate but one of its service wings still survives and awaits restoration.
The house built in 1726 would become known as Kenmare House and was designed and built by its owner Valentine in the style of a French chateau, influenced from time he spent in France. This new mansion incorporated an earlier seventeenth century house that stood on the site. The house was two-storeys high and a high dormered attic which was contained in a steep slated roof

The garden front of Kenmare House which was demolished in the 1870’s after the construction of Killarney House began. Surrounding Kenmare House were extensive formal gardens. Today only one of the side wings of Kenmare House remain and the beautiful gardens are a distant memory replaced by a field of grass. As the town of Killarney grew it has encroached on the area where the main block of Kenmare House used to stand.
The garden front of Killarney House shows a wondrous collection of gables, bay windows and chimneys. The intricate designs of the flower beds, stepped terraces and gravel paths give an indication of the cost involved in the creation of this masterpiece in the 1870s.
In 1872 the new Earl decided to abandon the existing Kenmare House that dated from 1726 and build a new extravagant mansion. The old house was seen as old fashioned and it was also said that the fourth Earl was pressured in to building the new house at the insistence of his wife Gertrude. The new house which would be known as Killarney House would be large and imposing red brick Elizabethan-Revival Manor and would occupy a more elevated site with the grounds of the demesne. It is suggested that Queen Victoria chose the site for the house when she visited in 1861 as it had wonderful views of the lakes and mountains. The cost to build the mansion was estimated at the time at £100,000 and the architect who designed it was George Devey. This mansion burnt down in 1913 and was demolished in the 1940s. In 1956 Mrs. Beatrice Grosvenor, the niece of the seventh Earl of Kenmare, sold Kenmare house and much of the Kenmare Estate, to an American syndicate

The entrance hall of Killarney House was designed to impress with its grand staircase, extensive panelling and an elaborate plaster ceiling together with a large collection of tapestries and antiques however alot of the contents seen here were lost in the fire in 1913.
A member of this syndicate that purchased 25,000 acres of the Kenmare Estate in 1956 was a Mr. John Mc Shain who eventually bought out the other members of the group to become the sole outright owner in 1959.   The remaining block of Kenmare House and the accompanying estate was sold to the Irish State in 1978 by John McShain, for a sum well below market value. He did this on the assurance that it would be incorporated into the neighbouring Killarney National Park. Mr. and Mrs. Mc Shain remained in the surviving block of Kenmare House that had previously been converted in to a house by the fifth Earl of Kenmare and the surrounding fifty-two acres for their use during their lifetimes. During this time when it was in the ownership of the Mc Shains, they remodelled it extensively and spent their retirement there inviting many friends and family to visit them. Mr. Mc Shain died in 1989 and his wife passed away in 1998, when the house and the land reverted to the Irish State as previously agreed. Most of the contents of the house were acquired by the Office of Public Works as they included important pieces of furniture and art dating back to the Earls of Kenmare.
The house has remained unused and the daughter of the John Mc Shain branded the neglect of the house a disgrace in 2008 when it was occupied by squatters. However I am glad to report that in December it appears that the restoration of Kenmare House is finally underway and at least part of one of the Browne’s former homes will be preserved for future generations.
You can read all about the history of Killarney and Kenmare House in my book Irish Country House -  A Chronicle of Change available from