14 September 2020

The Mall: an elegant
terrace of Georgian
houses in Cahir

The Mall is a a terrace of elegant Georgian houses by the banks of the River Suir in Cahir, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Cahir is best known for Cahir Castle and the buildings designed by the Regency architect John Nash. But when we returned to Cahir after this summer’s ‘Road Trip,’ there was an interesting variety of heritage buildings to enjoy last weekend.

Between Saint Paul’s Church in Cahir and the bridge on the River Suir below the Cahir Castle, the Mall is a terrace of Georgian houses by the riverbank that adds to the architectural beauty of this town in south Co Tipperary.

When the Butler family was restoring Cahir Castle in the early 19th century, the town was also transformed in a short period through an unprecedented building and rebuilding programme initiated by Richard Butler (1794-1858), 2nd Earl of Glengall.

Lord Glengall became personally involved and he personally bore many of the costs. He poured money into the Cahir estate in the 1820s and 1830s, giving his more important tenants long leases on strict conditions that they build according to his plans.

Michael Burke built most of the East Side of the Square; John Cusack built Old Church Street; John Egan built parts of Castle Street; Michael Blake built the Parish House; John Chaytor built the current AIB bank; and Dr Thomas Beale, John Chayotr’s brother-in-law, built the houses on the Mall. There was an unprecedented amount of building and rebuilding activity, and the town was transformed in a short space of time.

The Mall is a terrace of four, three-storey over basement houses close to Cahir Castle. The land on which they stand was leased by Lord Glengall to Dr Thomas Beale in 1820s, with specific purpose of building an hotel and a row of townhouses.

The first three of these houses were completed by 1830, and initially two of them served as the Cahir Castle Hotel. However, the Famine in the 1840s put paid to the completion of this scheme and other similar developments planned for the town. During the great famine in 1847, the Cahir estate was declared bankrupt, and the remaining six of the 10 houses planned on the Mall were never completed.

The Mall House is the first house on the left or north end of this elegant terrace, and was built ca 1830. A railed area to the basement provides privacy from the street, and access by a flight of steps creates an air of grandeur. High quality craftsmanship can be seen in the fanlight and sidelights.

This is an end-of-terrace, two-bay, three-storey over basement house, with a lower lean-to addition at the rear. Its features include a pitched slate roof, a rendered eaves course, a rendered chimney-stack, cast-iron rainwater goods, square-headed windows with stone sills, timber sliding sash windows, and decorative wrought-iron box window guards.

The elliptical-headed entrance is in a slightly concave opening with stone steps, a timber panelled door, cobweb fanlight and sidelights with decorative glazing. There are 12 ft high ceilings, sash windows with window shutters, ornate cornicing and coving, and original fireplaces and doors. This five-bedroom Georgian century family home retains many of its original features, with the original walled garden.

The first resident of the Mall House was James Barry, solicitor and seneschal to the Manor of Cahir. Later in the 19th century, the tenants of the Mall House included a variety of military and gentry figures. From 1900, it was home to Ned Smith, local millers and bank officials. It was bought by Paddy Walsh in 1969 and renovated. The house was sold in 1983 to Nora Curling, mother of the equine artist Peter Curling, and was later bought by Carmel Kerins.

The full-height bowed south gable and a round-arched carriageway enhance the house on the south end of the Mall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The end house at the right or south end of the terrace has a full-height bowed south gable and a round-arched carriageway on the south side of house, making it the grandest house on the Mall. A railed area to the basement provides privacy from the street, and access by a flight of steps creates an air of grandeur.

Once again, high quality craftsmanship can be seen in the fanlight and sidelights. The arched carriageway on the south side gives access to Mall Lane, with mews buildings at the rear of the terrace.

The details of this two-bay, three-storey over basement house include the red-brick chimneystack, cut sandstone quoins, a smooth rendered plinth at the south side, acting as a buttress to each side of bow, square-headed windows with limestone sills and timber sliding sash windows, the recessed timber panelled door, cobweb fanlight and half-length sidelights with decorative glazing, the limestone steps.

Remodelling Cahir cost Lord Glengall in the region of £75,000. However, with this lavish spending on the eve the Great Famine, Cahir’s owner became heavily indebted. Despite his marriage to a wealthy heiress, Margaret Lauretta Mellish, the family’s fortunes never recovered from his spending on Cahir, and he was declared bankrupt in 1849.

On the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court, an estate of almost 30,000 acres was advertised for sale in November 1853. The sale included lots in the towns of Cahir and Clonmel, the Manors of Cahir, Rehill and Castlegrace, all in Co Tipperary and Redmondstown and other property in Co Waterford. He remained a bankrupt until he died on 22 June 1858, and much of the land was later bought back by the family.

However, the Mall continues to form a significant part of the architectural heritage of Cahir and the quadrant arrangement of this formerly gated street remains intact.

Cahir Castle and the River Suir seen from The Mall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Swiss Cottage in
Cahir, a cottage orné
designed by John Nash

The Swiss Cottage in Cahir, Co Tipperary, a cottage orné designed by John Nash (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Returning to Cahir at the weekend, I wanted to see more of the Regency buildings designed by John Nash for the Earls of Glengall, including Saint Paul’s Church, the Erasmus Smith School and the Swiss Cottage, which was once part of the Cahir Castle estate.

The Swiss Cottage, 2 km south of Cahir, Co Tipperary, is a notable example of a cottage orné – an ornamental cottage or fanciful realisation of an idealised countryside cottage. Cottages like these were used for picnics, small soirees and fishing and hunting parties. They were also designed as peaceful retreats for the family who lived in the nearby ‘big house.’

The cottage orné or decorated cottage style dates back to a movement of ‘rustic’ stylised cottages in the late 18th and early 19th century, when there was a fashion to discover a more ‘natural’ way of living as opposed to the formality of the baroque and neo-classical architectural styles.

The Swiss Cottage in Cahir … a style developed in the late 18th and early 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

As with the earlier Petit hameau de la Reine at Versailles in France, these picturesque cottages were popular with aristocrats and gentry families in the early 19th century as places to ‘play at being peasants’ and to entertain guests, and as places for picnics, card games and theatricals.

English Heritage defines the term as ‘a rustic building of picturesque design.’ These cottages often feature well-shaped thatch roofs and ornate timberwork. Many were inspired by Strawberry Hill House – often known simply as Strawberry Hill – the Gothic Revival villa in Twickenham built by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) in 1749-1776.

Some cottages in this style I have visited recently include Martinstown House, Co Kildare, designed by Decimus Burton (1800-1881) for the Dukes of Leinster, and Laurelmere Lodge in Marlay Park, Rathfarnham, designed for the La Touche family, later known as Tamplin’s Cottage and known to generations of children as ‘Goldilocks Cottage.’

There are similar buildings at Burrenwood (Co Down), Derrymore (Co Armagh), and Glengarriff (Co Cork).

The Swiss Cottage in Cahir … commissioned by the Earl of Glengall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Swiss Cottage in Cahir was built around 1817 for Richard Butler (1775-1819), 1st Earl of Glengall and 10th Baron Cahir. He married Emily Jeffereys from Blarney Castle in 1793. Milady Cahir is referred to by Napoleon’s Josephine in connection with the Château de Malmaison.

Lord Glengall persuaded the Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) to design the Swiss Cottage on his estate. At the same time, he also commissioned Nash to design a number of other buildings in Cahir, including Saint Paul’s Church and the Erasmus Smith schoolhouse.

The Swiss Cottage, standing on an elevated perch above the River Suir at the top of stone steps, was designed as a ‘fantasy’ cottage to entertain guests. At first, it was simply known as ‘The Cottage,’ but it later acquired its present name because it was thought to resemble an Alpine cottage.

A glimpse of the timber spiral staircase in the Swiss Cottage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The cottage is laid out in a T-shaped plan, and has three bays to the front, timber-work verandas on several sides, and an ornate thatched roof. The external woodwork was designed to resemble branched trees.

Although the cottage is closed because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, we could peek inside and see the timber spiral staircase and the parquet floor designed in the style of a spider’s web.

A concealed basement below the cottage provided a separate servants’ entrance and kitchen and catering facilities.

Some rooms still have the original wallpapers designed by Joseph Dufour in Paris. This was reputedly among ‘the first commercially produced Parisian wallpaper.’

The stone steps leading up to the Swiss Cottage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

After the Cahir estate was sold off in the 1960s, a caretaker continued to live at the cottage. As children, we could see the Swiss Cottage, but were never able to gain access.

After some years of neglect, restoration work began at the cottage in 1985. The restoration was overseen by a partnership of the Irish Georgian Society, the Port Royal Foundation and the fashion designer Sybil Connolly, who was responsible for the interiors. Some of the original wallpaper was saved during the restoration project.

The restoration was largely funded by an American philanthropist, Sally Aall.

The Swiss Cottage opened to the public as an historic house museum in 1989. It is managed by the Office of Public Works and during normal times it is open to the public.

The Swiss Cottage offers a picturesque view across the River Suir in summer, attracting migrant birds such as swallows, sand martins, house martins and swifts. A tree beside the house is said to be over 1,000 years old.

A tree beside the Swiss Cottage is said to be over 1,000 years old (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Swiss Cottage is 2 km south of Cahir Castle and is easily reached along the Coronation Walk, running between the two, along the banks of the River Suir.

The walk, named for the coronation of King George IV in 1821, is surrounded by native broadleaf woodland planted from the 1790s on, including mature beech, oak, Spanish chestnut, sycamore, laurel, rhododendron and elder. It is also full of wildlife such as swans, duck and cormorants as well as red squirrel, pheasant and woodcock.

The bridge across the River Suir leading from the Coronation Walk to the Swiss Cottage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)