The destruction of Vernon Mount in Cork is just the latest example of the failure of the Irish people to take a serious interest in the preservation of this country’s architectural and artistic history.
When a group as significant as the World Monuments Fund, whose mission it is “to preserve important historic architectural sites and works of art without regard to national boundaries” takes interest in a site such as Vernon Mount, one would assume that naturally such international attention would warrant a serious and immediate response from local and national authorities, keen to preserve an internationally recognised structure.
Instead, Vernon Mount has for several decades languished in a state of total disrepair. Although Cork County Council carried out extensive roof repairs with grant aid from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in 2012, no other attempts have been made in recent history to preserve or restore the building that has stood as a landmark property since 1784.
Vernon Mount, named after Mount Vernon, the home of president George Washington, is a Georgian neoclassical villa situated on one of Cork’s southern hills, commanding an imposing view over the city. Built by one of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants during Cork’s time as a premier trading centre, the house and surrounding estate were decorated in a lavish manner. Among some of the glories of the house were several painted murals and a rare ceiling canvas by the celebrated Cork artist Nathaniel Grogan (1740-1807).
Once a property of immense wealth and opulence, with acres of landscaped gardens, Vernon Mount, like many other similar properties, fell into disrepair throughout the 20th century. The property was fortunate enough to escape destruction at the hands of the IRA during the Irish Civil War. As time wore on however, and with the running costs of such expansive estates rising and the wealth of the families that owned them declining, the property was eventually sold to a series of buyers.
In 1997 the house fell into the hands of developers led by San Diego based IT entrepreneur Jonathon Moss. Cork County Council refused the group planning permission to redevelop the house and build houses/apartments on the site, and rightly so. Vernon Mount is one of the most significant historical structures in the country. Or at least it was, until it was totally gutted by a fire on the 24th of July 2016.
After years of pleas from the Irish Georgian Society, as well as local residential groups and world organisations such as the WMF, the latest chapter in the varied history of Vernon Mount would appear to be it’s last, as the damage to the building is such that only a shell remains, and it is highly unlikely, given the treatment of the property up to this point, that any restoration project will be carried out.
None of this however can come as any real surprise. For decades the actions of the Government, as well as a significant amount of the population of Ireland, have made it clear that the preservation of such historical sites as Vernon Mount is not something that particularly bothers them, which is, frankly, disgraceful.
The story of the destruction of Vernon Mount is by no means a new one. Throughout the course of the Irish Civil War approximately 275 country houses were deliberately burned down, blown up, or otherwise destroyed by the IRA and their followers, with no regard for whether or not the buildings were of any national or historical significance.
Bowen’s Court, in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, the historic family seat of the Bowen family, was sold in 1959 by the famed novelist Elizabeth Bowen, and promptly demolished in 1961. Similarly, Kenure House, Co. Dublin, was demolished in 1978 by Dublin County Council, who, for some unknown reason, left the house’s portico standing as a ghostly reminder of the property that once stood on the site.
Coole House, of Coole Park, Co. Galway, was the home of Lady Augusta Gregory. Often seen as the seat of the Irish-literary revival, the house is famed today as the setting of WB Yeats The Wild Swans at Coole. Coole, described by Yeats as a symbol for the revival of Irish literature, was, according to the National Archives, actively demolished by the state in 1941. The demolition of these properties by local authorities is in no way unique in Ireland, and has often prompted the question, “Did no-one have the foresight to save and develop these buildings, so crucial and integral to our nation’s architectural and artistic history?”
It would seem that this question cannot be asked about Vernon Mount however. How could it, when for decades campaigners have tirelessly worked to try and save this property from the same fate as so many others in this country? Even with this active campaign to save Vernon Mount, its treatment in recent times has been deplorable, with the grounds of the estate being used as a motorcycle-racing track. Nothing was done to ensure the continued future of this gem of Irish architecture, and its destruction is a sad reminder of that fact.
These buildings – Bowen’s Court, Kenure, Coole, Vernon Mount – are a part of our heritage and history as a nation. Their deconstruction and demolition is deplorable and shameful. For me personally, their destruction calls to mind the reckless carnage of ISIL in their willingness to destroy their own cultural heritage, as the protections being put in place to save some of this country’s most significant structures for future generations is near non-existent.
Ireland is seen the world over as a place of exquisite beauty, as a land of scholars with a long and expansive history. For how long more can we maintain this image whilst actively ensuring the destruction of some of the country’s finest national architectural treasures? It’s high time that authorities began to consider the serious cultural value of these properties as they continue their purge of Irish heritage, and move instead to ensure their security for generations to come.