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Mespil Road

During the course of the last few weeks, while researching Edith Badham and her association with St. Margaret’s Hall School on Mespil Road, I came across Millar and Symes Architects. In fact, it was an entry in the Dictionary of Irish Architects which pointed me in the direction of the possible location of St Margaret’s Hall School in the first place.

Richard Millar and William Symes entered into partnership in 1874. In 1879, the firm was chosen from over twenty five applicants to become architects to the Bank of Ireland. This followed the retirement of Sandham Symes, a distant cousin of William’s, who had been architect to the bank since 1854.

That name rang a little bell with me somewhere. It was only when I was passing through Mountmellick the other day that I remembered that one of the buildings there was designed by Sandham Symes.  A couple of years before his retirement, he was responsible for designing the Bank of Ireland in Mountmellick.

But what caught my eye, as I trolled through the works of Millar & Symes, was one of the earliest commissions for the partnership, even pre-dating their involvement with Bank of Ireland. In fact, in the same year as Sandham Symes was conceiving the Bank of Ireland in Mountmellick, his cousin William, along with his new partner, were undertaking a commission up the road a few miles.

Millar & Symes were engaged by Capt Dunne JP to build a farm office, gate lodge and gate entrance for Brittas House, Clonaslee. Amongst other works listed for the partnership, and possibly around the same time, was the police barracks in Clonaslee.

BRITTAS CASTLE Image: archiseek

Image: archiseek


Nor, indeed, was this firm of architects finished in the area. In 1879, the same year they competed for the Bank of Ireland job, they were engaged by the heirs of Capt Dunne to build a new mansion at Brittas House. The contractors for the job were Morris of Sligo and the cost was £7,700. That building, it appears, was destroyed by fire in 1942.

in the small bit of research I have conducted into the Dunnes of Brittas, I have concluded that it would be unwise to make any attempt to unravel the Dunne dynasty and the machinations of the Brittas estate in the short space remaining this week. But it is certainly worth revisiting.

Indeed, a possible Abbeyleix connection crops up in the late Frank Meehan’s publication ‘Members of Parliament for Laois and Offaly’. Writing about the 3rd Viscount de Vesci, Frank tells us that the last public act of the Rt. Honourable Thomas Vesey (elected a representative peer for Ireland at Westminster in 1857), was to nominate General Francis Plunkett Dunne as a Conservative Home Rule Candidate in the election of 1874.

That election was held on 7 February 1874 returning two candidates.  Kenelm T Digby (Home Ruler) was elected with 1,726 votes, and Edmund Dease (Home Ruler) was elected with 1,639 votes. General Francis Plunkett Dunne (Conservative Home Rule) was unsuccessful, receiving 993 votes. Born in Brittas House in 1801, he died there on 6 July 1874, just five months after the election.

Since the initial works by Messrs Millar & Symes at Brittas House were commissioned in 1876, it was most probably Edward Meadows Dunne, a brother of General Francis Plunkett Dunne, who was the client. As far as I can tell, the Brittas estate went out of the Dunne family circa 1924. Having been sold to the Irish Government, like many others, the estate was divided under the auspices of the Irish Land Commission.

If you find yourself in the vicinity of the picturesque village of Clonaslee, you could do worse than travel the short distance to Brittas Lake, which today is a public amenity. It’s a tranquil place and the day I visited, a lone swan, flanked by half a dozen ducks, didn’t seem too bothered at my presence.

On the way to the lake you will notice the turret of the ruined Brittas House. Poking above the trees, it is a silent witness to times past.  And, if only its walls could speak, they might help to piece together the stories from within.

Tom Cox
Tom Cox
Tom Cox column 'An Eye on the Past' appears weekly in the Laois Nationalist newspaper.

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