Outside of the academic environment, identification of 17th century Irish houses is something ambiguous and confusing to most. For people that may never have studied or read anything on the subject there may be a pause as they question whether the Georgian architectural era that is so prevalent throughout the island is from the 18th century or was it later? Even the well-informed individual may stumble to identify the timeline of a ‘Georgian’ style house because it can sometimes sits firmly within the 17th century.
I am not an academic (anymore) and I will try to make some sense of the plethora of styles between 1600 and 1700 in Ireland. Academic papers usually select dates between 1550 to 1740 in order to integrate architectural styles as a ‘period’. However, without much explanation I’m going to start at 1600AD, I’ll give a nod to some architectural gems from the 16th century to start with and finish at 1700AD.
Munster must be acknowledged as arguably the most prosperous province for 17th century buildings. One house in particular that is a rare survivor from the mid-1500’s is Myrtle Grove. The building is characterised by the steep gables and oriel windows. This building is a gem of Irish architecture and it must be one of the earliest unfortified houses on the island. It is well known for being associated with Sir Walter Raleigh, a soldier, explorer and the rest! Part of Myrtle Grove folklore has Raleigh planting the first potatoes in his garden and the first to smoke tobacco on Irish soil. Raleigh acquired his 42,000 acres of Munster land after the defeat of the earl of Desmond in the 1580’s. The earl of Desmond owned a little less than 300,000 acres and in the aftermath of his defeat the redistribution of his land was dubbed the Munster Plantation.
Myrtle Grove 1550’s. Photo credited to Will McGoldrick – McGoldrick Art & Photography, 89 North Main Street, Youghal. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
Another ‘Gold Standard’ building that is a Tudor survivor is the Tipperary Ormonde Manor House. It was built in the mid 1560’s and as you can see from the photo there are gables galore! The gabled features were something that would have been very rare in Irish architecture at the time and it came from English architectural influence. It was the home of Thomas Butler, the 3rd Earl of Ormonde. Butler was closely tied to the English monarchy and he spent much of his time at the English Court. It was there he brought back his ideas to start on one of Ireland’s rare surviving (and still standing!) manor houses. If fact, this great house was a Long Gallery or House. Popularised by Cardinal Wolsey in the 1520’s, Long Galleries were used for exercise and entertaining. Internally, the building has the bragging rights for the earliest known renaissance-style plasterwork in Ireland and the space was heated by two Italianate fireplaces.
Ormonde Manor, County Tipperary (1560’s) Photo by Humphrey Bolton, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4050080
The 17th century architecture chapter in any book in the library will be a quick read and will reluctantly be the supporting actor to the elegant-natured 18th century Classic style that may fill a couple of chapters. One of the reasons architecture in 17th century Ireland is not studied and admired as much as the latter period is because of its lack of abundance mainly because it was stymied in its innovation from war, rebellion and famine and its lasting footprint is meagre in comparison to the following century. Ireland was also an unstable English colony and change by foreign influence could be met by fierce Gaelic reprisal if the status quo was adjusted. Gaelic Ireland was still a force to be reckoned with and vast swathes of lands were under Gaelic influence for the first 40 to 50 years of the century.
For those of you that might believe Ireland was run by the English from the 12th century on will find that reading the correct research, you will quickly understand the majority of the country was in Gaelic hands. However, by the mid 1500’s proprietorship of Irish lands began to change slowly with the coming of English plantation projects beginning in the midlands, then Munster and finally Ulster. This eventually saw the English move closer and closer to complete occupation as the whitened knuckles of the English-grip relentlessly squeezed to breaking point for Gaelic Ireland and by the 1620’s the country was firmly governed by the colonists.
The most ubiquitous of all structures in Ireland at the turn of the 17th century was the Tower House. A tall rectangular structure that was fortified and normally home to a lesser or middle-sized Lord. The Tower House has its origins in Ireland in the early 15th century and there are over 2,000 still standing in Ireland. However, there are Tower Houses in Scotland and Wales and their influence and style may have also come from a scaled-down Norman castle or even from the continent. The photographs below depict two Tower Houses, one in County Down and another in Southern France and Wales. The French building is nearly 200 years older than the Irish building.
A B C
A. Castle Ward, Co.Down Tower House built by the Ward Family in 1610.
B. Chateau d’Arques in the Aude, France built in the 14th century.
C. A Tower House in Wales from the late 14th century.
It was a fundamental requirement that the Tower House defended against any threats such as forays by neighbouring clansmen or colonists as these encounters were commonplace.
AB C A. Bartizan
B. Gun/arrow loop
C. Yett gate
Defensive features such as bartizans that were corbelled additions to the corners of Tower Houses with openings called machicolation gave the defender many angles to work with to defend from. Bartizans are commonly featured in Scottish buildings but not uncommon in Irish buildings. Gun and arrow loops are slits in the masonry of Tower Houses to give occupants a sight for oncoming attackers. Yett gates are also more common in Scotland but at least 20% of Irish Tower Houses were fitted with them (Duncan Berryman 2008).
However, although I have indicated that Tower Houses were defensive structures, it has been proven that defence was not always in the mind to an ambitious builder with a view to building a Tower House. Studies at Queen’s University Belfast have shown that Tower Houses were ineffective when up against experienced besieging attackers and the defensibility of Tower Houses has been brought into question. This means that they shouldn’t be ‘pigeon holed’ along with the larger and earlier Anglo-Norman castles. It also raises some interesting questions about the reasons behind the style of building chosen by their owners. Certainly, defence is a reason to build a Tower House but not the primary reason and the defensive ability of such a building was only as a last resort. Therefore, it leaves open a range of other logical reasons to choose the Tower House design as a house and home for a Lord. Future studies in this area may reveal interesting insights into the mind of the builders of these omnipresent structures across the island.
By 1643 Ireland had seen the last Tower House built in Derrynahivenny, County Galway. Standing side-by-side with Tower Houses from the 1550’s onwards Ireland saw a different type of building that was in some way related to the Tower House and became known as the fortified house, the Manorial House or castellated house (you choose!). Either way the need for defence was slowly diminishing and this was seen in this new style of building.
Kanturk Castle, built for McDonogh McCarthy in 1601 was a Gaelic Lord that took the Gaelic side in the Nine Years War against the crown.
Kanturk Castle (1601) Photo credited to The Poor Mouth Blogspot. For a virtual tour go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viNoGVnjSYI
Kanturk Castle is a good example of the architectural adjustments made from the single-form Tower Houses to more complex structures. The main additions are the towers or ‘flankers’ (flanking towers!) that create a strong symmetry to the building. Here defensibility is drastically reduced with mullioned windows placed centrally between each string course. Style and a ‘following of fashion’ are now part of the benchmark principles before any foundation stone is placed.
An example of this is the boroque door entrance into the castle (right).
The flanker plan, possibly seen first in Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin (1583), is featured throughout Ireland and Munster yields the most in this form. Along the Cork coast are examples similar to Kanturk Castle such as Coppinger’s Court (1616) and Monkstown Castle (1636). An interesting feature on Monkstown Castle that is found in later structures (some examples exist from the 16C) in Ireland is the English gabled roof. An exposed gable is not a fortified characteristic. All these can be seen using my maps service on the main page.
Monkstown Castle (1636) with gabled roof, bartizans (possibly for show) is a flanker plan.
An important note to make at this point is that there is no straight line in trying to explain the architectural history of Ireland in the 17th century. Styles emerged that ran alongside each other and they differed depending on which part of the island you are looking at. However, what can be taken from this chronology is that generally the emergence of less defended buildings as the century went on appeared on the Irish landscape and this depended on how safe it was for prospecting landowners to build and how benign the Gaelic Irish became as a counter force.
That said, Gaelic Irish landowners continued to build alongside English and Scottish settlers. One such building phase that became familiar on the Irish landscape was the Leamaneh-Loughmoe type habitations. These buildings showed innovation, prosperity and an adoption of new styles and outside architectural influence never seen before (outside of Myrtle Grove and Ormonde’s Longhouse). Many Tower Houses were extended with a manorial addition that became the lived-in part of a house. These additions were unfortified with multiple fenestration that would illuminate the space. Leamaneh and Loughmoe Castle are examples of this forerunner style.
Leamaneh Castle. Manor added to 15th century Tower House. Photo credited to P.L.Chadwick.
Leamaneh Castle is an English-style manor house built onto a 15th century Tower House. Built by Conor O’Brien in 1643, the same year as the last Tower House was built 50 miles away, shows how O’Brien was influenced by Jacobean architecture from England at a time when Ireland was in the throws of a rebellion with the English monarchy. There are countless examples of this type of the reusing of Tower Houses as an architectural continuum. An example of an English soldier, Edward Doddington, in the early years of the Ulster Plantation at Dungiven built a manor house onto the walls of an O’Cahan Tower House. In the 1980’s an archaeological dig unearthed the subterranean part of the Doddington building and concluded the walls of the building were not supported by proper foundations. Thus supporting the theory that the manor house was either quickly erected or the money simply wasn’t there to construct it.
By the time Cromwell departed from Ireland in the wake of his Protestant crusade, the country had been left in ruin and many of his soldiers were paid in Irish land. Whether good or bad, the period from the 1660’s to 1700 saw the undefended manorial house prosper as the most common style.
The Restoration period in the 1660’s saw some absolute gems being built and one in particular is Eyrecourt House, County Galway which is one of the most important of them all.
Eyrecourt Castle (1660’s) with symmetry, dormers, roof-line eaves and a baroque door entrance. Photo credited to Archiseek.
Eyrecourt House was one of the first artisan-mannerist houses in Ireland and boasts many features that are rare even in England such as the central bays being slightly recessed and the ground floor staircase. There are many dormers on the sprocketed roof with a pedimented façade and detail only a master-craftsmen could execute. Unfortunately, Eyrecourt House is derelict and falling down. However, the original stairs that are unique in style to Ireland are preserved in a Detroit University.
Richhill House, County Armagh is another contemporary example of an undefended building to emerge from the second half of the 17th century. Instead of a square plan like Eyrecourt, Richhill is a U-shaped plan that incorporated genteel detail such as ‘Holborn’ shaped gables which originated as a Flemish design and brought to England in 1610. The projecting wings that make the ‘U’ shape of the building may give a nod to the ‘Flanker’ type buildings forty years before. Maurice Craig, once a leading authority on 17th century Irish architecture comments on how similar Richhill ground plan is to Coppinger’s Court (1616), a flanker type semi-fortified house in County Cork. If this assumption from Craig is accurate it could mean that throughout the century certain styles that were prevalent from the beginning of the century tended to stay on the designers drawing board.
These Irish Restoration houses began to appear on the Irish landscape and they indicated many social elements that became its enduring architectural legacy. The fortified building was clearly an historical chapter in how people lived. The 1690’s saw a pause in the building boom as the Williamite Wars struck a blow to the Irish economy once again during the seventeenth century. Not even this most destructive war saw a reappearance of the fortified dwelling. An exquisite example of the continuation in building unfortified houses post-Williamite War is Springhill, County L/Derry.
Springhill (1690’s) front and back, near Cookstown, County L/Derry.
Springhill, built by the Conyngham Family in the late 1690’s, is a fine example of a building that links architectural styles and the socio-political whereabouts of Irish history at this juncture. The move from the defended to undefended habitation is fully apparent and it strikes more of a relationship with the next generation of architectural styles built within the following century such as middle-sized houses like Beaulieu (1715) to the Palladian styled Castletown House (complete 1729). Internal conflict was not seen in Ireland until a century later and thus began a new epoch in architectural design and freedom to equal that of its European neighbours.
The period between 1550 and 1700 was the most important period in the history of Ireland. It is important because of the change of power from Gaelic and Anglo-English to Protestant English and Scottish power. Through war and rebellion, lands were escheated to English and Scottish opportunists and this had a profound effect on Irish architectural history. Architectural styles were defined by the stability of the island and this is clear during the second half of the century when builders were erecting manors and adding details that were attracted from more fashionable parts of Europe and most importantly, without fear of being attacked. By the end of this period Ireland saw developments in industrialisation and city planning and would eventually see Dublin as Britain’s second biggest city.
However, Gaelic chieftains that had held power for millennia were merely pawns in the strategic future of Ireland by the mid-17th century. Many had fled the country and many had their lands reduced to a fraction of their once vast estates. That said, in later centuries there were Gaelic families that showed their resilience to change such as the O’Connell’s of Derrynane. During the first half of the 17th century, the Gaelic Irish that could afford to build, matched the new English settlers in building advanced new styles and absorbed new designs and techniques in habitation. It was only after the 1641 Rebellion and the onslaught of Cromwell’s New Model Army in the 1650’s that saw Gaelic architectural revivalism subdued and the coming of a new age in the ownership of new design become apparent.
The evolution of Irish architecture during this period is fascinating not only because it was dictated through a socio-political magnifying glass but because of the difference in building types from the start to the end of the period. Much research, time and effort, and possibly rightly so, has been dedicated to Ireland’s 18th century Georgian mansions but the period between 1550 and 1700 has been under-researched by a small but devoted number of historians. The period is transformational in Irish History and the architectural representation of the period mirrors this. It is through committed groups such as the Irish Post Medieval Archaeological Group that will continue to unveil the secrets of this period in Irish history