Moore Hall continues to yield its secrets
A new book by bestselling Mayo author David Hicks gives us another glimpse into Ireland’s own Downton Abbey heritage. ‘Irish Country Houses – Portraits & Painters’ sees Hicks return to his obsession – the ‘big house’ – but here he zooms in on the stories behind the portraits that hung on the walls.
One of the book’s chapters is devoted to Moore Hall, the stately remains of which lie on the north shore of Lough Carra. Built on Muckloon Hill in the 1790s by the Moore family, the building was sadly destroyed by fire in 1923 during the Civil War.
The portrait in the Moore Hall chapter is of Maurice Moore, the younger brother of the famous writer George Augustus Moore (1852-1933). The brothers had a difficult relationship, with Maurice seen as a safe pair of hands. If Maurice and not George had inherited, Moore Hall might still stand today. ?
Catholic landed gentry, the Moores were regarded as decent landlords by the local population. Built by George Moore (1727-99), Moore Hall was designed by architect John Roberts, who also designed Waterford Cathedral, and was completed in 1795.
Originally from Straide, George went to Spain during the time of the Penal Laws, and there made his fortune in the wine and brandy trade, running his business from Alicante. When the Penal Laws were relaxed at the end of the 18th century, he returned to Mayo with a fortune of £200,000, and in 1783, he bought 12,000 acres of land and commissioned the grand residence of Moore Hall.
George’s son, John (1767-99), was educated in France, but he returned to Mayo with the rebellion of 1798. General Humbert appointed him President of the Connacht Republic after the Races of Castlebar, making him the first president of an Irish republic. That claim to fame was all too brief, however: He was captured by the English Lord Cornwallis, and died in captivity in Waterford on December 6, 1799. In 1961, his body was exhumed and brought to Castlebar, and he was buried in the Mall with full military honours. His brother, George, married Louisa Browne, a niece of the second Earl of Altamont. A historian and something of a recluse, he died in 1840.
The next George, George Henry Moore (1810-70) was marked out by compassion. At the height of the Great Irish Famine in 1846, he entered a horse called Coranna for the Chester Gold Cup and made £17,000 from bets laid on the animal. During the Famine, he imported thousands of tons of grain to feed his tenants, and gave each of his Mayo tenants a cow from his winnings. It is said that on the Moore Estate, no one was ever evicted from a home for non-payment of rent in hard times, and that nobody died there during the Famine.
It was under the watch of the next George, George Augustus Moore, that the beautiful family home burned in 1923 during the Civil War. He had turned against the Catholic church, and is variously recorded as agnostic and a Protestant sympathiser. This, combined with his pro-Treaty stance, was probably the undoing of Moore Hall.
David Hicks’s fascination with Moore Hall started when, as part of his degree in Interior Architecture from Sligo IT, he wrote a thesis on the stately home. As a result, he began to research the Irish country house. While researching Rappa Castle in Mayo, home of his great grandmother, he decided to put together his first book, ‘Irish Country Houses – A Chronicle of Change’ (The Collins Press, 2012).
Why did he feel compelled to return to the subject? “Houses, such as Moore Hall in County Mayo, were built to impress and many of the owners were patrons of the arts who commissioned the finest international artists of the day to capture their own or a family member’s likeness,” Hicks explains. “These imposing and beautiful creations now hang on the walls of many of these houses, and behind the painted faces there are stories of happiness and sometimes misfortune. These are the stories I want to highlight.”
David Hicks’s new book brings a selection of masterpieces to life by piecing together the stories behind them and retelling the tales of those who once called these ‘great houses’ home. While researching and compiling the book, Hicks was granted access to private art collections, galleries and some of Ireland’s great country houses, and he has created an incredible catalogue of the architectural, social and political histories of these lavish mansions.
By exploring the beautiful portraits of former residents, along with the history of the artists who painted them, Hicks has unearthed many captivating stories of a bygone age. Who knows what other tales these great houses have yet to give up.
‘Irish Country Houses – Portraits & Painters’, by David Hicks, is published by The Collins Press, price €39.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from www.collinspress.ie.