Thursday, 4 January 2018

Castleconnell’s Tontine houses
form an elegant Regency terrace

The Tontines in Castleconnell, Co Limerick, is an elegant terrace of four Regency houses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Castleconnell in Co Limerick has retained its 18th and 19th century character with the traditional facades of the shops, pubs, hotels and houses. The abundance of elegant Georgian and Regency houses gives the village a unique character that is unusual in most Irish villages.

On the edges of the village, the Tontines is a fine terrace of four Regency period houses built in 1812. Samuel Lewis notes in his Topographical Dictionary that the Tontine terrace was built by William Gabbett through a fund raised by subscription.

Tontines were an investment plan in which participants bought shares in a common fund and received an annuity that increased every time a participant died, with the entire fund going to the final survivor or to those who survived after a specified time.

In Limerick, the terrace of Georgian houses on Pery Square is known to most people as the Tontines because it was built as a speculative development by the Pery Square Tontine Company in 1835-1838. By 1838, the houses in the terrace were let to tenants.

The most widely-known Tontine-inspired stories include Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Wrong Box (1889), Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington (1957), a Miss Marple murder mystery, and Something Fishy (1957), a novel by PG Wodehouse. The Wrong Box was made into a movie by Bryan Forbes (1966), and the star-studded cast includes John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers, Irene Handl, Nanette Newman and Tony Hancock.

The word ‘tontine’ is derived from Lorenzo de Tonti, an Italian political exile living in France. He proposed the original tontine to Cardinal Mazarin in the early 1650s to help King Louis XIV raise revenue. The French treasury, depleted by the Thirty Years War and rebellions in France, needed to raise money. The idea spread to Italy, Switzerland and Britain, but Tontines in their purest form were banned in Britain under the Life Assurance Act of 1774, primarily because of the perverse incentives inherent in a product that offers benefits when others die.

In a tontine investment scheme, the shareholders derive some profit or benefit while they are living, but the value of each share devolves to the other participants and not the shareholder’s heirs on the death of each shareholder.

But Gabbett’s speculative venture in Castleconnell was a financial failure, but his houses, which are set back slightly from the line of the road, form an elegant terrace that is an attractive feature in the streetscape of the village.

At the right-hand end of the terrace, No 1 is an elegantly proportioned and substantial house. This is an end-of-terrace, two-bay, three-storey house with a basement, and with a wrought-iron balcony on the first floor. A round-headed opening over the timber-panelled front door has a cobweb fanlight and the doorcase is flanked by Ionic-style columns.

This house retains its original form and character, with important salient features and materials. The early surviving wrought-iron balcony and limestone dressings contribute to the historic character of the piece.

In 2012, the Mitchell family was living at No 1. John and Camilla had lived there since the 1960s having returned from Chepstow in England with their three children.

No 2 The Tontines, is a mid-terrace, two-bay, three-storey house with a basement and wrought-iron balconies to first floor. A round-headed opening over the timber-panelled front door has a cobweb fanlight and the doorcase is flanked by Doric-style columns.

William and Elizabeth Breen and their family moved into No 2 The Tontines in February 1981.

No 3 The Totines is a mid-terrace, two-bay, three-storey house with a basement, but without a balcony. A round-headed opening over the timber-panelled front door has a cobweb fanlight, and the house retains many unique features.

Bruce, Colette and Saibhe Bullock were living at No 3 The Tontines in 2012. In May 2015, this carefully renovated house, was placed on the market through Sherry FitzGerald O’Malley with an asking price of €450,000.

The four-bedroom house has 3,250 sq ft of living space with features such as high ceiling and cornicing, original fireplaces and floorboards and a cellar in the basement. The rooms include a large drawing room and a large dining room both with fireplaces and original flooring.

At the left-end of the terrace, No 4 is an elegantly proportioned and substantial Regency or Georgian house, and retains its original form and character. This end-of-terrace house was formerly the rectory in Castleconnell.

This end-of-terrace, four-bay, three-storey over basement house also has a porch at the front. The wrought-iron balcony on the first floor, the sliding-sash windows and the limestone dressings all contribute to the character of the house. Above the timber-panelled door, the round-headed opening has a cobweb fanlight and the door is flanked by Ionic-style columns.

In 2012, the O’Connell family was living at No 4 The Tontines, known as the Glebe House. The residents of these houses celebrated the bicentenary of the Castleconnell Tontine in 2012.

This terrace of houses remains an elegant and attractive feature in the streetscape of Castleconnell.

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