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Fighting the bulldozer

Harry Mount on the fate of Georgian country houses in Ireland

20 August 2008

12:00 AM

20 August 2008

12:00 AM

Fifty years ago, when the Irish Georgian Society was founded, the bulldozer was a familiar sight in Ireland, trundling along elegant urban terraces and drawing up at the gates of country houses. One of the bulldozer’s prominent Dublin victims half a century ago was No. 2 Kildare Place. This 1751 gem, just next to the Dail, was in excellent condition; the house was only destroyed because the state, which owned the building, had no desire to maintain it. One government minister even said of the Kildare Place demolitions, ‘I was glad to see them go. They stand for everything I hate.’

Fifty years on, and things are a lot better. The passage of time — and a booming Irish economy — have meant that Georgian buildings are no longer associated with a rich, foreign Ascendancy class.

In the interim, there have been grievous losses. Lots of great houses are now only remembered in the name of a housing estate or shopping centre — like Santry Court and Frescati House, both in Dublin. But many splendours escaped the wrecking ball, too, thanks to Desmond Guinness — offspring of the beerage — and his wife Mariga, who founded the society together in 1958. Guinness still remembers his heartache at coming out of the Shelbourne Hotel in that year to see workmen ripping the slates off the Kildare Place roofs.

In the capital, the Tailors’ Hall, St Catherine’s Church and Mountjoy Square were saved by the society. Elsewhere, Roundwood in Laois, Damer House in Tipperary, and Doneraile Court in Cork were further triumphs, among many others. Perhaps the most famous of the survivors is Castletown House, Kildare — Ireland’s earliest and finest Palladian mansion.

It’s fair to say, then, that the Big House in Ireland is now safe. The Not So Big House is not so safe. Farmhouses and the houses of the vanished gentry class are most at threat now. Because they aren’t open to the public, they don’t get the tax breaks available to bigger, open houses, and they must rely on grants from local authorities. As for the Irish Georgian Society, it is still voluntarily provided for by private individuals, with no state funding.

Despite the Celtic Tiger economy, then, there are still some heart-stoppingly beautiful houses that are at risk — if not quite lost causes…yet.

In its first year, the society drew the attention of its members to Vernon Mount, built in the 1780s on the outskirts of Cork City. With its matchless painted interiors, it makes for a charming cottage-palace, set in a wooded park of 30 acres. Half a century later, Vernon Mount is still at risk. Eagle-eyed country house addicts will have spotted the placard saying, ‘Save Vernon Mount’, outside the house’s gates on the road to Cork airport.

It would be a tragedy if a country which now has the resources and the will to save its prettiest adornments let the bulldozer start up again.

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