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CULTURE Ballina author explores Irish Country Houses

Staying In
Belleek Castle, as it stands today.
STATELY SPLENDOUR Belleek Castle, as it stands today.?Pic: Courtesy of Paul Doran.

Glimpsing a golden age

Belleek Castle in Ballina among country houses explored in new book

Ciara Moynihan

In times of recession, our fascination with affluence and aristocracy seems to grow. Perhaps the prickly realities of squeezed day-to-day living – bill paying, price checking, budget planning – are somewhat cushioned by an escape into lush period dramas like Downton Abbey and The Paradise.
But we don’t need to look across the water for a taste of past splendour. Eighteenth-century Ireland was a land of plenty for members of the small but dominant Ascendancy elite, as landlords experienced a lucrative economic boom. This was the heyday of the Irish country house; often an architectural masterpiece, always the centrepiece of each great estate.
However, the social and political upheaval of the early 20th century left the Irish country house adrift in a changed land. Family feuds, careless heirs, recession and war meant that only the most resourceful or fortunate houses survived.
A new book, ‘Irish Country Houses – A Chronicle of Change’, by Ballina-based author David Hicks, offers a glimpse into a golden age long gone. Hicks was granted unprecedented access to country houses, castles and previously unpublished photographs to produce this visual record, chronicling the buildings’ social, political and architectural history.
By printing period photographs alongside contemporary images, Hicks illustrates the ways in which these manor houses and castles have changed, bringing to life a hitherto vanished age of opulence. Some of these photographic comparisons poignantly demonstrate great losses in Ireland’s architectural heritage. However, some also tell a tale of rebirth and revival, with many extraordinary buildings living on as public buildings or hotels.
Belleek Castle in Ballina is one such building. It has stood the test of time, surviving today with its original interior restored and an exterior as impressive as it surely must have been when it was first built. Hicks’s exploration of the rich history of this manor house is fascinating – a true tale of fortune and resourcefulness.
Commissioned by Francis Arthur Knox-Gore in 1831 and costing in the region of €10,000 – a princely sum at the time – Belleek Castle was designed by architect John Benjamin Keane. Francis had inherited the estate 13 years earlier, at the tender age of 15.
Keane also worked on three castles in Northern Ireland in the 1830s, but the remains of these have been, as Hicks says, ‘scarred by the effects of time’, and they are now in ruins. Keane began his career as an architectural assistant to Richard Morrison in 1820s. After establishing his own practice in 1823, he worked on manor houses for the gentry and other commissions, including churches and courthouses. His creations include Queens College Galway (now NUI Galway) and St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford, which was sadly destroyed by fire in 2009.
Keane’s own life was also ultimately tragic, Hicks reveals. “The later years of his career were tainted with alcoholism, which cursed his talent and caused him to fall into debt and resulted in his imprisonment. He died in 1859.”
During its lifetime, Belleek Castle served as a family home for generations, with the estate at one time employing more than 70 staff who took care of the manor’s kitchen garden,  sawmill, estate lands, and large kennel of hounds that were kept for hunting. In the 1950s it was bought by Mayo County Council for use as a sanatorium. “The interior of the castle was whitewashed and the reception rooms now housed female patients who were suffering from tuberculosis,” Hicks writes. A few years later, it was briefly used as a barracks.
In the 1960, the building was saved from threatened demolition by Marshall Doran, who bought it and restored its interior to its former glory, and transformed the castle into a hotel. Doran had a keen interest in history, and amassed a collection of eclectic items of cultural significance, including 16th-century armour, Jurassic fossils, the last wolf shot in Ireland and, intriguingly, Grace O’Malley’s four-poster bed.    
Belleek castle is still run as a hotel today by Marshall Doran’s son Paul, who Hicks says “continues his father’s tradition of making the castle a hospitable place.”
The story of Belleek is just one of many explored in ‘Irish Country Houses’. Hicks also looks at the three other Keane castles in Northern Ireland – Magheramena Castle and Irvinestown Castle in Fermanagh and Camlin Castle in Donegal – as well as Mount Talbot House in Roscommon, Clonbrock House in Galway, Castle Bernard in Cork, Wynne’s Castle in Kerry, Adare Manor in Limerick, Wilton Castle in Wexford, Powerscourt House in Wicklow, Áras on Uachtaráin and many more.

‘Irish Country Houses – A Chronicle of Change’, by David Hicks, is published by Collins Press. It retails at €39.99 and is available in Easons or online at www.collinspress.ie. For more information on Belleek Castle Hotel, visit www.belleekcastle.com.