The Plight of the Big House in Northern Ireland

JAK Dean
Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 2020
pp 154 fully illustrated p/b
£24 ISBN: 978-0-900457-83-8
Reviewed by Philip Smith

If we compare pre-1920s Ordnance Survey maps covering present-day Northern Ireland with those of today, the extent of the loss of ‘big houses’ – from the grand Georgian country mansions of the aristocracy and gentry to the more modest Italianate suburban villas of the Victorian nouveau riche – is readily apparent. The eye-catching, tree-speckled demesnes of the early maps have in many instances given way to a cartographic blandness of farmland, forestry, golf courses and housing developments, with their former centrepieces either swept away or left to crumble. The increasing realisation of what we have lost, however, along with an ongoing fascination with the lives once led in such places, has kept the big house alive in our imaginations, and it is this that makes The Plight of the Big House in Northern Ireland such an irresistible and, to my mind, long-overdue read.

In line with the author’s comprehensive Irish gate-lodge series, the book is essentially a gazetteer, with the focus on Northern Ireland’s big houses that have been lost or are currently at risk. It is a roll call of those fallen in action (planned demolition, fires and several explosions), through inaction (neglect and eventual bulldozing) or, in some cases, a combination of both.

A discussion of the most common misfortunes to befall many of the featured properties forms much of the fulsome introduction. Surprising as it may seem, and despite the fate of Antrim Castle and the tragic occurrences at Tynan Abbey, political upheaval (in its early 1920s and 1969–98 iterations) had relatively little impact. Many more significant mansions, among them Belvoir, Drumilly, Gill Hall, Langford Lodge, Pomeroy House and Roslea, to name a few, met their ends at the hands of government agencies, the Forestry Commission possessing a particularly lamentable record in this regard. But this was an era in which even the National Trust was not immune to philistinism, as the fate of Killynether House testifies. In a real sense, however, both the state and the trust were merely bringing down the curtain on a spiralling melodrama – commencing with the passing of the Land Acts and accelerated by the effects of two world wars and heavy taxation – that had proven the undoing of many landed families and their homes.

There is broad diversity in the size and architectural quality of the houses included here, from Drumbanagher – the magnificent 1830s Italianate pile constructed for Maxwell Close by William Playfair of Edinburgh – to Farrancassidy, a charmingly low-profile early Georgian vernacular farmhouse. Worth highlighting is the inclusion of many of the comparatively smaller residences that populated Belfast’s hinterland. Built largely by the town’s leading merchants from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, these owed their existence to the settlement’s growing prosperity, only for most to be eventually destroyed by it. Both houses and grounds were eaten up by the march of the late Victorian and Edwardian terraced developments, many of whose streets adopted the names of the properties they consumed. These houses almost merit a publication in their own right.

Though the story of most of the buildings here is a melancholy one, greater awareness and the advent of listing and grant-aid have, as the author observes, contributed to a decrease in the rate of destruction in recent decades. But a reliance on statuary protection is not the long-term answer. Big houses survived for generations because they possessed both purpose and the means of support. The same is as true today as it was two and a half centuries ago.

Philip Smith is a historian who works for the Department for Communites Historic Environment Division, Northern Ireland.


Gentle études

Mary Kate Benson (1846-1921) Landscape with figures in a row boat 1879 oil on canvas 29 x 45cm


Mary Stratton Ryan looks at the life of Mary Kate Benson, a tentative figure in the Irish art pantheon, on the centenary of her death

On 23 June 1883 a prestigious art exhibition opened in the Athenaeum in Limerick City. It was held in collaboration with the Science and Art Department, South Kensington Museum, London. Paintings on loan included canvases by Rubens, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable, Caravaggio, Poussin and Van Dyck. Hanging beside these classical masterpieces were well-known Irish painters: Haverty, Maclise, Danby, Mulvany, Brocas and Cregan, to name a few.

Four hundred and twenty-eight works were on show. Twenty-seven of these were by eight female artists – one Welsh, two Italian, three British and two Irish. Outstanding were recent works by Mary Kate Benson and Sarah Henrietta Purser, both professional artists. Benson’s paintings included: Morning Mists, North Wales, Landscape, Birchwood in June, A Portrait, and Breezy Day.

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No filter

Stephanie McBride discovers that, like Banksy and French music duo Daft Punk, threadstories is using her own masked identity and anonymity as a riff on celebrity status, or an inversion of it

From online avatars to PPE, we live in the age of the mask, and the early days of the pandemic lockdown brought out long-buried sewing skills and DIY face coverings. This surely adds resonance to the work of the anonymous Irish artist known as threadstories.

With a degree in Fine Art and a childhood surrounded by talented craftmakers, threadstories is currently based in Kilkenny. Her exquisite masks are made of wispy filaments, rope, ribbon and yarn, which she then turns into a gallery of mesmerising and unusual self-portraits. It can take just two days to create a simple piece from scratch; a larger, heavier mask can take a week, though she says much of the process involves reworking. The cycle begins with a crocheted balaclava; then threadstories braids, shades and tufts the threads in a whirligig of textures, whorls and colours.

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Myth and material

Sallyanne Morgan Missing Missing things 2021 ferrous cement 43(h) x 36(w) x 38(d)cm


Isabella Evangelisti visits the studio of sculptor Sallyanne Morgan and finds that there is potential for much larger, more expansive work

Sallyanne Morgan is a newcomer on the Irish art circuit, although she has been working and exhibiting her sculpture for many years in various countries around the world, latterly in Cambodia and Malta, from where she arrived home to Ireland in 2019.

Morgan received a technical rather than a fine-art training, which explains her focus on materials and on craft and product over a process-based art practice with its insistence on the primary importance of the concept. She comes across as having a strong work ethic and a rather workmanlike approach to her sculpture. Her technical background may also explain her interest in using various ferrous-cement materials in her sculptural works. This approach to the material sets up an interesting contradiction in the work. Its hardness contrasts with her very intuitive approach to what has often been regarded as a decorative subject matter, the female nude. She also uses clay, alone or in conjunction with the cement, and she often adds other materials, including marble dust, sand, fabric and pigment. Some pieces she adorns with text. Occasionally she includes what could be referred to as ‘found objects’, such as the detritus from musical instruments to be seen in Instrument I and Instrument II. The concrete produces an abraded, granular surface which is then waxed and polished, making it more tactile and light-reflective. There is no doubt that the industrial quality of the material contributes to her avoidance of banal prettiness in the figure. Her interest in the aesthetics of the female body is nuanced with the awareness of the social conditions that surround it. However, there is a poetic sensibility to her treatment of the female figure that is at once both moving and invigorating, both personal and universal. In her work she constantly references her own body or those of her daughters.

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Jettisoning memories

Jack B Yeats (1871-1957) Leaving the Far Point (detail) 1946 oil on canvas 35.5 x 46cm ©Estate of Jack B Yeats


150 years since the birth of Jack B Yeats, Hilary Pyle considers the concept of memory embedded in his work

Memory must have had significance for Jack B Yeats from the time he was baptised and given his father’s name and that of his great grandfather, John Butler – the ‘ancestor’ who was Rector of Drumcliffe in Sligo. His parents commemorated the past. However, Jack never used this family name given to him. He was always ‘Jack’, and early on he recorded his distinctive self in a New World-style signature with his second name appearing as a single initial – thus ‘Jack B Yeats’. Typically there’s a note of impish humour in the signature. Jack was at an age when the Wild West was his passion – he had seen Buffalo Bill in live performance, and it would have elated him to adapt his name like this, associating himself with his American hero. But there’s practicality too in this wise move of his teenage years, differentiating him unequivocally from his father, also an artist, who signed his work either with his full name or with the initials, ‘JBY’.1

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Moving images: Ross McDonnell

Photo from the series ‘Joyriders’.


New York-based Irish photographer and film-maker Ross McDonnell’s ‘Joyrider’ series began in Ballymun around 2005. At the time that area of Dublin was synonymous with bad planning, drugs and gang violence, and a byword for urban deprivation. McDonnell documented a young generation who were coming of age during a highly publicised urban renewal project. The regeneration was never completed; some space ended up as part of NAMA’s portfolio and the project was eventually wound down.

A new Ballymun plan is currently in development, so it is timely that Joyrider is now being published in its complete form. Exhilarating, unflinching and at times poignant, the book’s beautiful black-and-white images portray a generation asserting their place and identity at a time of failed state policy and neglect.
McDonnell moves between the still and moving image with grace, edge and insight, and his flair is also on show in several recent film projects. With four Emmy Award nominations, The Trade is a series that explores illicit industries, from opioids to human trafficking, and tells the stories of those affected. Besides co-producing, he has a personal nomination for Best Cinematography.

He also co-produced and was director of photography on The First Wave, due for release by National Geographic. The film goes inside a New York hospital during the initial Covid-19 outbreak. Also opening this autumn and recently screened at Galway Film Fleadh, his company’s Love Yourself Today features singer Damien Dempsey and delves into the concept of music and healing.

Meanwhile, his extraordinary photo series ‘Limbs’, shortlisted in 2019 for the Prix Pictet, is now part of a touring show. ‘Limbs’ documents and humanises a collection of improvised prosthetic legs at Jalalabad’s orthopaedic hospital in Afghanistan. The startling images provoke reflection on individuals who are caught up in war, ravaged yet resilient. McDonnell’s approach both compels and unsettles as he explores human fragility and tenacity.

Prix Pictet is at the Gallery of Photography until November.

Stephanie McBride


Branchardiére Bursary

Fiona Harrington Fragile Economies 2020 Photo: Kate Bowe O’Brien.


The Branchardiére Bursary is awarded annually to an Irish artist working in lace and is funded by a bequest made in the 19th century by the self-described ‘authoress and designer’, Mademoiselle Eleonore Riego de la Branchardiére. Born in England in 1828 to an Irish mother and a French father, by the time of her death at aged fifty-nine, Branchardiére had published a mere seventy-two books. From her first, Knitting, Crochet and Netting, written when she was aged eighteen, she revolutionised the world of needle-point work, greatly influenced Victorian fashion and became a wealthy woman, with an address at New Bond Street in Mayfair.

Branchardiére’s design books on ‘tatting’ – a handmade lace with knots and loops made of thin thread – were used to make everything from doilys to veils and introduced new ideas to the craft still in use today. Her patterns were adopted in Ireland and aided a cottage industry in producing lace products for export from the time of the Great Famine. Branchardiére never forgot her Irish roots and her bequest established the award.

Branchardiére’s patterns were adopted in Ireland and aided a cottage industry in producing lace products for export from the time of the Great Famine

In collaboration with the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, this year the RDS Lace Branchardiére Bursary is worth €8,000 and has been awarded to artist Fiona Harrington. Harrington’s mother made lace and previous generations of her family were hand-weavers. She employs the traditional Irish lace techniques of Carrickmacross and Kenmare needlepoint in her pictures and sculptures, the latter which were exhibited in the National Gallery of Ireland last year. With the bursary monies, Harrington hopes to continue to innovate in her practice and ‘strengthen the profile of Irish lace worldwide’. In June she represents Ireland at the international lace symposium ‘Doily Free Zone’.

Harrington’s inspiration comes from her home on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, where she still sees ‘an almost reverent beauty in the trees, flowers, animals and hedgerows’.
Rose Comiskey


Painters of the West

Estella Solomons Parknasilla 1911 oil on board 26.6 x 36.8cm


Poet W B Yeats advised the young John Millington Synge, a student in France in 1896, to change his life and go West. His brother Jack spent some of his childhood years with his grandparents in Sligo. Paul Henry, then working in London, was encouraged to visit Achill Island by his friend, the writer Robert Lynd. Living in the West of Ireland was a revelation to artists and writers, often changing the course of their lives and inspiring them to create some of their finest works. Yet they were not the only figures to have been influenced by such experiences. Artists have been visiting the western seaboard, from Kerry up to Donegal, from the 18th century up until the present day. This includes not just well-known figures such as Yeats and Henry, Frederic W Burton, Seán Keating and Gerard Dillon, but also hundreds of other artists, Irish and British, with a few from Europe and America. Some were little known, while a handful were highly successful in their day.

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Municipal Art Gallery for Galway

Picture of John Behan beside one of his sculptures

John Behan RHA Photo Dean Kelly.


Galway’s role in creating the Irish renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is well documented. Edward Martyn, WB Yeats, JM Synge and George Moore, under the auspices of Lady Gregory, met in Coole Park on the outskirts of this city to forge a path for a cultural revival that brought about huge changes in framing our national identity. The visual arts were at the forefront of that vision. Artists have responded since then, from Jack Yeats to Seán Keating, Lilian Davidson, Arthur Armstrong, Elizabeth Rivers and Gerard Dillon, right down to those working today.

There is a vibrant visual-arts community in Galway at the moment, yet there is no proper collection of their work to display to either locals or visitors

There is a vibrant visual-arts community in Galway at the moment, yet there is no proper collection of their work to display to either locals or visitors. While there is an art collection in NUI Galway, it remains in storage – there are no facilities to display it. The lack of a municipal art gallery puts the city at a serious cultural disadvantage in relation to cities such as Cork, Limerick and Belfast and towns such as Drogheda, Sligo and Carlow.

I have seen tourists from Japan, America and France, visitors from all over the world, wander forlornly through the city in search of an art gallery. Galway, which attracts the third-largest number of visitors per annum of any city in Ireland, has no designated public art gallery. There is a real necessity to facilitate the display of Irish visual art here. What an important innovation a municipal gallery in Galway would be, and what a benefit to both the city and the county in the future.

Having lived for over forty years in Galway, working away on a quotidian basis as a sculptor, I have to emphasise that the absence of a dedicated building to exhibit art in Galway is insufficient to the needs of a modern city.

John Behan


New perspectives at the NGI

The National Gallery of Ireland


Surely the reopening of the National Gallery of Ireland represents a ray of light, a welcome break in the massed Covid clouds? The gallery has been a cherished part of Irish cultural life more or less since its foundation as one of Europe’s earliest public galleries in 1854. Its very fabric, its exhibition rooms and its developing collections have been points of reference for Irish people, including numerous artists and writers, through the generations. Samuel Beckett was a devoted visitor and he, like countless others, credited the gallery as an invaluable educational treasure. So the fact that it is once more open to visitors must be good news, mustn’t it?

Yes; and then again, no. The Catch-22 is that you are being asked to pay for entry to the opening show, ‘New Perspectives’, a display of acquisitions made over the decade since 2010. Gallery byelaws adopted by the board in 2019 enable the National Gallery to ‘provide for the fixing of fees and charges in respect of entry to any special exhibition or other event held in the Gallery’. But, frankly, it could be argued every exhibition is ‘special’, as is every ‘event’.

You are being asked to pay to see works, gifted or purchased with public funds, that now form part of the Gallery’s permanent collection

Take ‘New Perspectives’. You are being asked to pay to see works, gifted or purchased with public funds, that now form part of the gallery’s permanent collection. This is an ominous expansion of the extant policy of charging entry to expensive visiting exhibitions. That the collection is freely accessible to the public has long been a cornerstone of gallery policy – and of its wide appeal; the principle has been close to the hearts of many of those associated with the gallery over the years, including the significant benefactor Sir Denis Mahon. And it has contributed to the hitherto widespread, egalitarian sense that it is ‘Our Gallery’, not some expensive consumer bauble for the delectation of the better off.

It is more than disappointing that the current board – which, incidentally, includes several artists whom one might expect to know better – is presiding over this drift towards exclusion and exclusivity without so much as a peep of protest.

Aidan Dunne