As mentioned in the previous entry, Castle Coole is located only around 10 miles from Florence Court in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, and was our second colonnaded house in two days. Castle Coole was built a little later than Florence Court, though, and is a more pointed demonstration of wealth than its neighbour. For example, while the former’s colonnades are simply a façade, those of the latter are genuine wings housing their own rooms.
The ‘castle’ in the name is a little misleading as there is not a moat or portcullis in sight, but the title has simply remained unchanged since the time when there was a fortified building at this location. The current house is instead a 1790s neo-classical construction, designed by James Wyatt – an English architect and rival of Robert Adam – who made his name with the Pantheon in Oxford Street. Meanwhile, interior plasterwork design was contributed by Joseph Rose (another renowned London name at the time) and the scagliola columns are the work of Domenico Bartoli. The use of these designers alone reflects the ‘no expense spared’ attitude of Castle Coole’s owner Armar Lowry-Corry as he embarked on his grand project to build a more imposing family seat (an attitude he would come to regret).
Lowry-Corry, who later became the 1st Earl of Belmore, inherited a significant amount of money, not only from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but also from his three aunts, all of whom outlived their husbands and died childless. Unfortunately for the Earl though, there was a limit to his wealth and it seems that James Wyatt was a man who wouldn’t know a limit if it came and bashed him in the face! The architect overspent his budget… and then overspent it a little more… so by the time the house was finished, Lowry-Corry’s finances were overstretched and there was nothing left with which to buy furnishings. I imagine Wyatt’s attitude to any criticism would have been ‘you have a beautiful house built with genuine Portland stone shipped all the way to Ireland from the West Country and transported via a purpose-built quay on the coast of Donegal… and now you want furniture too?!’ Perhaps adding insult to injury, neither Wyatt nor Joseph Rose ever visited Castle Coole, simply sending their extravagant orders across from London.
Luckily for us – but less so for the family finances – the 2nd Earl seems to have been as slapdash with coinage as James Wyatt and proceeded to commission a suite of luxurious furniture, including many mahogany and gilt pieces with which to enhance his grand rooms. He also travelled extensively on his own schooner, the Osprey, and I can’t help thinking that if he were still alive today we would probably find him living it up in a lavish penthouse apartment in Monaco, with his private yacht moored in the harbour below.
The 3rd Earl didn’t live long after inheriting the estate, so the financial mess created by the 1st and 2nd Earls was left to the 4th one to sort out. This was Somerset Lowry-Corry, who inherited in 1845. He was closely involved with Westminster politics and later earnt the favour of Queen Victoria by helping her son after an assassination attempt. The Earl even managed to have a foot in two rival political camps as he was married to Gladstone’s niece, while his cousin Montagu Corry was Disraeli’s private secretary. The name of this latter gentleman rang a bell for me and he has indeed already cropped up in this blog… he made it into the Hughenden entry because I found him rather attractive from his portrait!
Getting back to the family finances, the 4th Earl was forced to sell off parts of the estate and outlying properties to pay debts and by the time the 7th Earl inherited it was the 20th century (1949) and times were particularly tough for owners of these large stately homes, so the property was bought by the National Trust using a grant from the Ulster Land Fund. The 8th Earl maintains a close interest in the running of Castle Coole and continues to own the contents of the house so, like Florence Court, photography is not allowed inside. Thankfully, unlike Florence Court, there is a more detailed guidebook available with pictures of many of the grand rooms; however, the postcard selection wasn’t great so I’m afraid there are no interior pictures included here (you’ll have to make do with another shot of the grand entrance).
Identifying my highlights at Castle Coole was difficult as several of the rooms made a serious impression. I think my favourite would have to be the oval Saloon with its curved doors and furniture, which were designed specifically to fit its elliptical walls. Meanwhile, the Roman-style Entrance Hall is a perfect introduction to the house, with its strong symmetry, scagliola columns, matching ceiling and door friezes, and torchères, which our guide informed us had again been purposely designed for this space and had been in the same spots for over 200 years. I also loved the double-height Lobby upstairs, which is naturally lit by a dramatic oval skylight, and which features classically designed stoves in the wall niches, a great way to camouflage the heating. The Bow Room, with its Chinese-style wallpaper and textiles and its views down to the lough, has a more informal feel than some of the state rooms and would be a lovely place to sit and read.
As with Florence Court, the tour also took us into the basement to see some of the servants’ quarters, which are extensive and run below the entire house, and the talk was concluded in the kitchen, which has an impressive – but entirely fake – range along one wall, which was built by a visiting film crew.
When the tour was finished, our guide said that if we hadn’t enjoyed it his name was Kieran, but as we did enjoy it very much, I’d like to give a shout out to Leo, which was his actual name! His tour was the perfect combination of information and occasional humour, and he also encouraged members of the party to contribute their own guesswork along the way.
After the tour and a spot of lunch, we took a walk down to the boathouse at the lough, passing by the site of the former Queen Anne house that was built by Armar Lowry-Corry’s grandfather Sir James Corry in 1707, and which burnt down in 1797. It was then back to the tearoom for the compulsory cup of tea and slice of cake before heading off to Belfast International for the flight home, happy in the knowledge that I have finally made a start on Northern Ireland and that I am rolling into the second half of my challenge.
Highlights: So many rooms…. the Saloon, the Entrance Hall, the Lobby, the Bow Room
Refreshments: Tuna mayo jacket potato with salad; slice of lemon cake and pot of decaffeinated tea
Purchase(s): Guidebook; postcard of part of the Saloon
Companion(s): Dusty Jackets
NT Connections: Florence Court, built by the 1st Earl of Enniskillen, who was the brother-in-law of Armar Lowry-Corry, builder of Castle Coole