14 September 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)

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