Ancestral Home of Lord Rathdonnell Rathvilly Co. Carlow
The Felling of the Big House – Lisnavagh, 1952 By Turtle Bunbury.
Reducing the size of Lisnavagh House by Turtle Bunbury
The west face of Lisnavagh House, in the midst of the seismic operation that reduced the house in size by nearly two thirds. The man in the trilby is the 4th Baron Rathdonnell (my grandfather), standing with my late aunt Rosebud. The four men pictured are presumed to be Jack Halpin with either Matt Brien of Ouragh [sic]; Tom Neill of Station Road; Mick Byrne of Newcestown; Brian McCutcheon of Templeowen and / or Mick Gorman of Parc Mhuire. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Halpin and Tony Roche).
William Robert McClintock Bunbury, my grandfather, was born in 1914. Educated at Cambridge, Bill – as his friends called him – was married in 1937 to Pamela Drew, a fun-loving artist from the Lake District whose ancestry combined banking and printing. Just weeks before their marriage Bill’s father died and he succeeded as 4th Baron Rathdonnell at the age of 23. During the Second World War, Bill served with the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars, commanding a team that helped round up several of the senior Nazi leaders, including Hitler’s successor Admiral Doenitz in June 1945.
Lisnavagh House was not yet a century old by the time Bill returned from the war. The first stone of the massive mansion was laid by his great-grandmother on 23 January 1847. Much of the main house had been boarded up during the war. A combination of exorbitant roof rates, dry rot and lack of cash compelled Bill and Pamela to take the dramatic decision to completely redesign Lisnavagh House by pulling down two thirds of the original Victorian structure, leaving behind the servants quarters and children’s wing.
Time Out. L-R: ___ (of Clonmore)?, Jack Halpin (Tullow), ___(of Clonmore)? , Matt Brien (Ouragh), Tom Neill (Station Road), Jer Byrne (Newstown), Peter McGrath (Tullow) and PJ Roche. With thanks to Tony Roche.
The Lisnavagh Archives contain a letter to the 4th Lord Rathdonnell from Aubyn Robinson of Caroe & Partners, College Street, Westminster, written in 1947. Aubyn was an uncle of Lady Rathdonnell (aka Pamela Drew), who was herself a noteworthy artist. Her ‘before-and-after’ watercolours, which gave the architect his general steer, are framed and hanging in the house today. Aubyn’s letter set out what he considered to be the future options for Lisnavagh – reduction in size, a new-build or a move to another house; together with various shapes and sizes of drawings, some of them very rough, in connection with the reduction of the house to its present size. One drawing marked in red the part of the house which stood over the basement (the servants’ quarters) which was ultimately the part of the house they chose to preserve, with modifications, enlarging as necessary the rooms in it. Meanwhile, the ‘grand’ rooms in the other part of the house were demolished. Pamela and Aubyn jointly master-minded the reduction of the house, in conjunction with the late Allan Hope (1909-1965) and his Dublin firm of architects. The latter subsequently presented their drawings to the Irish Architectural Archive, Merrion Square, Dublin. In addition, the archive has copied all or most of the outsize drawings, by Daniel Robertson and others, kept in the studio at Lisnavagh.
Once the decision to reshape the house was taken, my grandmother went at it with full throttle. ‘Rejuvenate the Positive’ was her New Year’s resolution. ‘Only the Best Will Do’, she scrawled in her notebook. When my brother William transcribed these notebooks (see below), he was struck by the fact that there were no regrets. Moreover, every single change had been carefully planned. The simple brief was “to produce a 40 room hunting lodge out of a 80 room romantic rambling chateau’. The book is peppered with Grannyisms – ‘bash a hole’ … ‘desultory destruction’ … and also reveals that she enjoyed dancing to a radiogramme until 3am on occasion!
THE IRISH TIMES carried the following advertisement on Friday, April 11, 1952, which was repeated in short on Sat 19th April and in full on Sat 26th April.
JAMES H. NORTH & CO., Ltd.
Sale Thursday 15th May. Lisnavagh, Rathvilly, Co. Carlow. Furniture, Schiedmayer Pianoforte, Sèvres Chandelier, Porcelain, Paintings etc. Owing to extensive alterations of the residence we have been instructed by the RT. HON. LORD RATHDONNELL to dispose of a residue of Furniture, Pictures, etc., of which the following is a basic résumé – Schiedmayer Grand Pianoforte; SUITE OF LOUIS XV GILT FURNITURE of Settee, 6 Single and 6 Armchairs, pair of Gilt Foot Stools; interesting Louis XVI Carved and Gilt Settee, pairs of Gilt Chairs, Carved Gilt Mirrors, Console Table, Mahogany Dining Table on pod. Settees. SÈVRES CHANDELIER, pair Sèvres Chandeliers, pair Sèvres and Ormolu Candleabra, large Sèvres Clock, Suite of Damask Curtains, with gilt and caved wood cornices; Occasional Tables, Tallboys, Chairs, etc.; usual Bedroom Furnishings of Toilet Tables, Chests of Drawers, Washstands, etc.
PAINTINGS include Large Painting of Reclining Figure by GUERCINO: ‘Set of Four Paintings’; ‘The Life of Our Lord’, after Pannini; pair of Classical Landscapes by ORIZONTE; also other paintings after VANDYKE [sic], Lely, Massot, Montanini, etc.
FURTHER DETAILS IN FUTURE ADVERTISEMENTS.
JAMES H. NORTH & CO., Ltd.
MIAA, Auctioneers, 110 Grafton Street. Tel. 77309 and 72532. Established over a century.
Above (L-R): Jack Halpin; Lord Rathdonnell (?); Rosebud (aka Rosemary McClintock Bunbury, who had a birthday party at this time); Matt Brien; Tom Neill of Station Road; Mick Byrne of Newcestown. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Halpin and Tony Roche).
On May 14th 1952, Pamela wrote ‘Ghastly Auction by Messrs. North, very wet, much given away’. The next line in her book was ‘June: House cut in TWO’.
The demolition project was overseen by Jack Halpin of Tullow, father of the late Willie and Sheila Halpin; it was Sheila who supplied several of the images for this tale. Jack’s grandfather James Halpin was a bootmaker based on Main Street, Tullow. Jack’s father William Halpin was a colourful fellow who climbed to the top of the steeple of the Catholic Church in Tullow to install the steeplejack in about 1878. Shortly afterwards he joined the newly formed Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Betty Scott told me Jack Halpin had eight men helping him take down the bulk of the house. My father reckons it was only four and that they, like Jack, had learned the art of demolition in London after the war. As he writes: ‘Jack had cut his teeth on blitzed buildings in London and was engaged to begin breaking out new doorways, etc. before a contractor came to do the main task. The contractor never materialized and Jack continued. He was more than overseer but not really a full contractor. Each Saturday he produced an invoice to my father summarizing the week’s expenditure, mainly pay; at the bottom was “To self and supervision – £10” Quite amazing! (The agricultural wage then was about £5). Jack, his son-in-law P.J. Roche and Mick Gorman were the core workforce but there must have been more at times, and farm men when available.’ My father’s father would draw the wages of Jack and his three accomplices every week, just like he drew wages for all the other farm hands. There was no contract like with present day builders.
My father adds: ‘As these photographs show – having provided extra doorways as needed – they broke a hole through the building just outside where the kitchen, now library, is. They then took down the west face, looking down the Lime Walk, numbering the stones, and re-erected it in the gap; later the middle of the building was demolished. The whole job could not have cost more than £12,000. (Had a quote for an extra bathroom of late?). For that the house, as now is, was wired, got a modern hot water system (very rare in Ireland at the time!) and central heating that worked, and the old building was completely removed.’
Above: A rare photo of Lisnavagh before the reduction; everything except the three roomed block immediately beside the portico was felled. The half-moon lawn is still there today.
Most of the house came down by hand but machines came in to carry the rubble away. Andy Verney has a theory that the terraces became compacted at that time by those machines, so much that they are now prone to flooding. Some of the stone from the old house certainly went down the Front Avenue; Andy Verney says you can see it poking up every now and then. Some may have gone down the Back Avenue to the Gate Lodge although Andy says that when he arrived circa 1964, one of his first tasks was to rebuild that road for which they got their granite from over by Haroldstown.
At the same time the house was being dismantled, Major Hugh Massy was summoned north from his home at Killowen to assist PJ Roche in stripping all the oak from the horrid Victorian stain, black or ginger, from the condemned rooms for the new library; tables and chairs, mirrors, doors and windows, all the library bookcases, went into the bath of caustic soda in the backyard to emerge pale and lovely.
Above (L-R): PJ Roche (facing away); Betty Scott, an O’Toole who apparently worked at Lisnavagh House; Jack Halpin (holding hat); tall woman who worked at Lisnavagh; Brian McCutcheon of Templeowen; Mick Gorman of Parc Mhuire; Matt Brien of Ouragh. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Halpin and Tony Roche).