Kilshannig House, Rathcormac, County Cork

contact: Hugo Merry Tel: 087-2513928

Open dates in 2020 (but check due to Covid restrictions): May 1-3, June 1-30, July 1-31, Aug 1-31, Sept 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 28, 30, May & Sept 8.30am-2.30pm, June-Aug 10am-4pm

Fee: adult/OAP €10, child €7, student €8

Stephen and I visited Kilshannig House in Rathcormac, County Cork, in August 2020, during Heritage Week. Kilshannig is most notable for its wonderful stucco work.

I rang Mr. Merry in advance, and he was away but told me his housekeeper could show us around. Stephen and I were spending a few days on holidays with our friends Denise and Ivan, and Denise decided to join us to come to see the house. I was excited to show someone what it is like to visit the section 482 houses. In most cases, like this day visiting Kilshannig, we are going to see someone’s private home. It is not like visiting a place normally open to the public, like Fota House or Doneraile Court, two houses which Stephen and I also visited while in Cork, which are now owned and run by Irish Heritage Trust and the OPW (Office of Public Works) respectively. [1] I always feel that I am an inconvenience, requesting a visit someone’s home. I must remind myself that it is visitors like me and you who ensure that the section 482 revenue scheme continues. I envy owners of these beautiful homes, but maintaining a Big House is almost a career choice. In fact owners often express their belief that they are the caretaker of a small part of Ireland’s built heritage. In this case, Mr. Merry runs an equine stud, and it is the success of that which enables him to maintain the upkeep of his home. He has also converted an extension into self-catering accommodation [2].

The house, as you can see from the photograph of the entire sweep, is Palladian [3]. It was built in 1765-66 for Abraham Devonsher, an MP and a Cork banker. The date 1766 is written on a “hopper” and probably commemorates the completion of the house.

Cast-iron rainwater goods having ornate hoppers, dated 1766, with gambolling lion and winged cherub head, square-profile down pipe and moulded joints.” [see 9]

It was designed by Davis Ducart [or Duckart], whose Irish career began in the 1760s and continued until his death in about 1785. The Dictionary of Irish Architects tells us:

According to William Brownlow, writing to the Earl of Abercorn in 1768, he ‘dropped into this Kingdom from the clouds, no one knows how, or what brought him to it.’ [4]

The Irish Historic Houses website tells us that Ducart worked as a canal and mining engineer as well as an architect. With engineering skill, he was committed to good design and craftsmanship. The Dictionary of Irish Architects tells us of criticism of his work, however:

An attack on him in the Freeman’s Journal for 3-4 February 1773 states that he had given up architecture by this time: ‘Our French architect … never could bring any thing to perfection he put his hands to; he made some of his first (and, alas! his last) experiments as an architect, at the cost of the public and many private gentlemen, in the country and city of Cork, the latter of which bears a large monument of his insipid, uncooth taste in the art of designing; he was actually ignorant of the common rules and proportions of architecture; eternally committing mistakes and blunders, and confounding and contradicting his own directions, until he himself saw the folly of such proceedings, and (not without certain admonitions) quitted the profession he had no sort of claim to.’

I do not know enough about architecture to contradict the writer in the Freeman’s Journal but the Irish Historic Houses website claims: “Ducart was arguably the most accomplished architect working in Ireland between the death of Richard Cassels and arrival of James Gandon.” [5] In an article in Country Life, Judith Hill suggests that criticism was motivated by professional jealousy of a foreigner. [6]

Other works associated with Ducart are the Mayoralty or Mansion House, Cork (1765-1773); Lota Lodge in County Cork (1765); Castletown Cox in County Kilkenny (1767); Brockley House, Laois (1768); Custom House of Limerick (1769) which now houses the Hunt Museum; Castlehyde House, County Cork; Drishane Castle, County Cork (which is also a section 482 property, not to be confused with Drishane House – about which I will be writing shortly). [see 4]

The cherrypicker out front mars the photograph, but Anne the housekeeper explained that work was being done in the house. The front door is approached by a flight of limestone steps.

The house consists of a central block of two storeys over basement (with a mezzanine level), with wings either side that are described by Mark Bence-Jones as “L” shaped but to me they look U shaped, almost like a pair of crab claws. [7] Curved walls close in either wing into courtyards. Frank Keohane describes it in The Buildings of Ireland: Cork, City and County:

At Kilshannig, Ducart developed his own interpretation of the ubiquitous Irish Palladian country-house plan, which he also used with modification at Castletown Cox, Co Kilkenny, and The Island, Co Cork (demolished). Eschewing the Pearse-Castle tradition, Duckart’s central block is flanked by inward turned L-shaped (rather than rectangular) wings which project forward to form a cour d’honneur. Curved screen walls connect the inward-facing ends of the wings back to the house and enclose kitchen and stable courts. The principal North front, looking across the park to Devonsher’s parliamentary borough of Rathcormac, comprises a neat central corps de logis flanked by six-bay blind arcades, representing the back ranges of the courts, which terminate in domed pavilions. The plan has been likened to that of Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard, Yorkshire.” [8]

The view from the front, overlooking Rathcormac.

Keohane suggests that Davis Ducart was probably assisted by Thomas Roberts of Waterford. The front of the house is of red brick with limestone quoins, and the centre block is seven bays across with a single-storey three bay Doric frontispiece which the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage tells us is of cut sandstone. [9] The frontispiece has Doric style pilasters, and the door and window openings have fluted scroll keystones with plinths that look like they should hold something, in circular niches. The pilasters support an entablature which the National Inventory describes: “with alternating bucrania and fruit and flowers metopes and triglyphs.” The metopes are the squares with the pictures of “bucrania” (cow or ox skulls, commonly used in Classical architecture, they represent ancient Greek and Roman ceremonies of sacrifice) and fruit and flowers, and the triglyphs are the three little pillars between each square picture (wikipedia describes: “In classical architecture, a metope (μετόπη) is a rectangular architectural element that fills the space between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze, which is a decorative band of alternating triglyphs and metopes above the architrave of a building of the Doric order.“) [10]

Above this stone frontispiece is an empty niche which Bence-Jones tells us contained, in a photograph taken in approximately 1940, a statue or relief of a warrior or god.

There is a mezzanine level, which is unusual in such a house, and we can see that the windows at this level are squeezed between ground and first floor levels. The Irish Historic Houses website tells us that the house has four formal fronts. Unfortunately we did not walk around the house so I did not photograph the other fronts. The basement windows are semicircular, which is apparently characteristic for Ducart.

photograph from the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage [9].
the basement windows, “charmingly glazed with cobweb-like astragals,” as Casey and Rowan describe them. Photograph from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

The wings have five arched windows each and Keohane tells us that the wings are actually low two-storey buildings. The copper domes and timber cupolas have been reinstated by the present owners.

On the back facade the arcades have plain Tuscan pilasters supporting a deep entablature with small blind roundels above each arch.

Photograph from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage – you can see that this was taken before the domes were reinstated.

Anne the housekeeper welcomed us and brought us into the impressive Baroque hall.

Front Hall. Excuse the dirty floor, from ongoing repair work.

Keohane writes that the plasterwork in Kilshannig is by two different people with distinctive styles. He writes: “The accomplished decoration to the Saloon and Library ceilings is the work of the Swiss-Italian Filippo Lafranchini, here combining emphatic late Baroque modelling with the refinement of small-scale ornament of a Rococo character. The remaining decoration, which is vigorously naturalistic and in places ungainly, is by an unknown, and presumably Irish, hand.” For more on the Lafranchini brothers, see the Irish Aesthete’s entry about them. [11]

The stuccadore of the wonderful Rococo plasterwork in the hall is therefore unknown. Our guide, Anne, pointed out that the birds, that reminded me of birds at Colganstown by Robert West of Dublin, stick out too far and that the heads have a tendency to be knocked off. The ceiling is deeply coved, and features acanthus leaves, flower and fruit-filled baskets and garlands with draped ribbons.

The floor of the front hall is of Portland stone with black insets. The walls have Corinthian columns and the corners of the ceiling decoration are curved.

The hall has a beautiful Portland stone fireplace with a mask flanked by garlands, and two male Grecian bearded Herms (“a tapering pedestal supporting a bust, or merging into a sculpted figure, used ornamentally, particularly at the sides of chimneypieces. Roughly similar to a term.’) [3]. Herm refers to Hermes, the Greek god.

Here we see one of the birds who has had its head broken off.

The entrance hall leads to a three bay saloon, with dining room on one side and library on the other. To one side of the front hall is a corridor leading to the wonderfully curving staircase. The stone floor and stuccowork continue into the corridor, which has panelled walls.

The circular cantilevered Portland stone staircase rises two full rotations to the first floor. The domed ceiling has more stuccowork. There’s also a lovely circular pattern with geometrical black and grey shapes on the floor below the stairs.

You can see the mezzanine level in this photograph, and the Portland stone cantilevered stairs.

The doll house is an architectural model of Kilshannig! It even has electricity! It was made for the young girl of the house, Sophie.

Amusingly, the Kilshannig doll house is more advanced than the actual house, as the attic has been converted! The actual attic of Kilshanning House has not been converted. As the owner charmingly told me: “The two [bedrooms] in the dolls’ house are poetic license to give the owner of the dolls’ house the opportunity to decorate and fit it out bedrooms.”

Denise, duly masked for Covid, in the hallway at the bottom of the staircase.

We entered the library first. The current owner’s father, Commander Merry, and his wife, bought the house. With his DIY skills, the Commander installed the library shelves, acquired from a Big House built in the same period as Kilshannig. The room has another spectacular ceiling, which is deeply coved. The centre features a rondel with Diana and Apollo, and the corners have oval plaques depicting the Seasons. The cove features female portrait busts, eagles, standing putti and garlands. Christine Casey has noted the likeness of the cove to that formerly in the Gallery at Northumberland House in London, which was decorated by Pietro N. Lafranchini, perhaps in collaboration with his brother Filippo.

The rondel in the centre of the library ceiling featuring Diana and Apollo.
The female heads in rondels in the library are believed to portray members of the Devonsher family [10].

The doors have been stripped back to their original timber.

The next room is the Saloon, or Salon. It has a particularly splendid ceiling, also by Filippo Lafranchini, “combining emphatic late Baroque modelling with the refinement of small-scale ornament of a Rococo character” (Keohane):

“Joseph McDonnell has established that the figurative work is derived from an engraving of 1717 of a now lost ceiling painting by Antoine Coypel, the Assembly of the Gods, at the Palais-Royale in Paris. The centre depicts Bacchus and Araidne, with Pan and a sleeping Silenus, reclining on almost imperceptible clouds. The lavishly intricate border consists of six cartouches framing plaques depicting the Four Elements – Water (a dolphin), Air (an eagle), Earth (a lion), and Fire (a Phoenix) as well as Justice and Liberty. These are linked by a sinuous frame populated by charming putti with dangling legs. The corners feature trophies dedicated to Architecture, Painting, Music and Sculpture.” [12]

“The centre depicts Bacchus and Araidne, with Pan and a sleeping Silenus, reclining on almost imperceptible clouds.”
Justice, blindfolded. The Art of painting is represented in the right corner. Other corners represent architecture, music and sculpture.
Here we see architecture represented in the corner trophy.
The lion on in the left rondel, symbolising Earth, and the eagle on the right, symbolising Air. The other of the four Elements are represented, by a dolphin for Water and a Phoenix for Fire. I love the way the legs and feet of the putti and especially Ariadne stick out from the ceiling.

The final room we were shown was the dining room. Keohane writes that the stuccowork is by a different hand than the Lafranchini brothers. “The deep cove has four large oval cartouches of naturalistic foliage with masks depicting Bacchus, Ceres, Flora and Diana, the last framed by trophies of the chase and a rather insipid fox.” [13]

I believe the figure at the bottom, next to the rather sadly draped hanging game, is the “insipid” fox.
The head of Bacchus, encircled by grapes.

It was in the dining room under Bacchus that we stopped to consider how odd it was that a Quaker, as Abraham Devonsher was, had such an elaborate ceilings created in his home. Indeed, he was expelled from the Quaker community before he had the house built, in 1756, for “conformity to the world.” This was because he entered politics that year and became an MP for Rathcormac. [14] My husband Stephen, a Quaker, tells me that in order to serve as an MP, Devonsher would have had to swear an oath, and Quakers do not believe in swearing oaths – they believe that their word suffices (George Fox said: “My yea is my yea and my nay is my nay.”). The borough was very small – in 1783 it had only seven electors. Devonsher won his seat by appealing directly to the electors, unseating the Barrys who had traditionally held the seat. He entertained grandly in order to woo the electors. He also served as High Sheriff for County Cork in 1762. The Devonsher family had settled in Cork as merchants in the mid seventeenth century. [15] The article in Country Life tells us that toward the end of his life the sociable Abraham Devonsher “lives a recluse life with a Harlot.” He led a rather rakish life, apparently, and he died childless in 1783 – or at least left no legitimate heirs – and left the estate to a grand-nephew, John Newenham, of Maryborough, County Cork (now a hotel) who then assumed the name Devonsher.

John had a son, John (1763-1801), who inherited the house and passed it to his son, Abraham Newenham Devonsher. He ran into financial difficulties, and at some date before 1837, sold the estate to Edward Roche (1771-1855). [16] Edward Roche used it as a winter residence, and lived the rest of the year in his other estate, Trabolgan, as did his son, Edmond Burke Roche, who was raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Fermoy in 1856. He was also an MP and served as Lord Lieutenant for County Cork 1856-1874. According to the Landed estates database, at the time of the Griffith Valuation, James Kelly occupied Kilshanning. The Griffith valuation was carried out between 1848 and 1864 to determine liability to pay the Poor rate (for the support of the poor and destitute within each Poor Law Union). The 1st Baron Fermoy’s sister, Frances Maria, married James Michael Kelly, another MP (for Limerick), of Cahircon, County Clare, and James Kelly was their son. According to the Landed Estates Database, in 1943 the Irish Tourist Association Survey mentioned that it was the home of the McVeigh family. Mark Bence-Jones adds that other owners were the Myles family, and Mr and Mrs Paul Rose. The property had a succession of owners until it was purchased in 1960 by Commander Douglas Merry and his wife.

When they purchased it, the cupolas had disappeared and one wing was ruinous and the rest in poor condition. Commander Merry set about restoring the house. His son Hugo has continued the work, partly with help from the Irish Georgian Society [17]. This work included repairing a sagging saloon ceiling, and restoring the pavilions and cupolas, recladding them in copper. The entire main house, arcades and both courtyards have been completely restored and re-roofed. One wing is used for self-catering and events, and the other contains stables. There are fourteen bedrooms in the wing, and six in the main house, Anne told us.

We did not explore the outside, and did not get to see inside the pavilions or wings. That will have to wait for another visit!

[1] https://fotahouse.com/

http://doneraileestate.ie/

[2] http://thecourtyardkilshannig.com/

[3] Palladian architecture is a style derived from the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Palladio’s work was strongly based on the symmetry, perspective, and values of the formal classical temple architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. https://irishhistorichouses.com/2020/04/18/architectural-definitions/

[4] https://www.dia.ie/architects/view/1660#tab_biography

[5] https://www.ihh.ie/index.cfm/houses/house/name/Kilshannig

[6] Hill, Judith. “Pot-Walloping Palladianism.” Country Life, June 15, 2016.

[7] Bence-Jones, Mark. A Guide to Irish Country Houses. (originally published as Burke’s Guide to Country Houses volume 1 Ireland by Burke’s Peerage Ltd. 1978); Revised edition 1988 Constable and Company Ltd, London.

[8] p. 465. Keohane, Frank. The Buildings of Ireland: Cork, City and County. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020.

[9] https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/20904408/kilshannig-house-kilshannig-upper-co-cork

[10] https://irishhistorichouses.com/2020/04/18/architectural-definitions/

[11] https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/05/18/exuberance/

[12] p. 466. Keohane, Frank. The Buildings of Ireland: Cork, City and County. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020.

[13] Ibid.

[14] http://lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.com/search/label/County%20Cork%20Landowners?updated-max=2018-07-21T07:33:00%2B01:00&max-results=20&start=8&by-date=false

[15] Keohane writes that Abraham Devonsher’s parents are Thomas Devonsher and Sarah Webber. The website The Peerage says his mother was Sarah Morris. https://www.thepeerage.com/p30600.htm#i305998

See also the article in Country Life from June 15 2016, by Judith Hill, that is linked to the Kilshannig courtyard website. Hill says Abraham Devonsher’s father was named Jonas, and that his family began to acquire the land at Kilshannig from the 1670s.

Keohane says that John Newenham was Abraham’s nephew, the Peerage website has John as the great nephew: Abraham’s brother Jonas had a daughter Sarah who married Richard Newenham, and it was their son, John Newenham, who inherited Kilshannig.

The home of the Newenhams, Maryborough, is now a hotel:

https://www.maryborough.com/index.html

[16] http://landedestates.nuigalway.ie/LandedEstates/jsp/estate-show.jsp?id=2764

[17] https://www.igs.ie/conservation/project/kilshannig


2 thoughts on “Kilshannig House, Rathcormac, County Cork

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