Flights of Fancy; Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly by Rachel McKenna, Architect for Offaly County Council. By Amanda Pedlow, Offaly Heritage Officer

Flights of Fancy; Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly by Rachel McKenna has just been published by Offaly County Council at £30. It’s a large format coffee-table type book with over 350 pages, in full colour and hard cover. It can be bought across the county, Irish Georgian shop, Dublin and Offaly History Centre, Tullamore.

The book looks at the evolution of the demesne in Offaly with no less than fifteen studies of demesnes across the county from Charleville, Birr, Gloster, Tubberdaly, Ballycumber, Moorock, Busherstown, Prospect, Acres, Belview, Mullagh Hill, Ballyeighan, Hollow House, Kinnitty to Loughton. The big names such as Birr are well-known but there are others that provide surprising and interesting excursions into the county’s landscape, architectural history and family history. There are lots of curious things that are fascinating such as the story of the ‘mummy’s hand’ at Prospect House and Lord Bloomfield’s experiences as ambassador to Russia in its glittering heyday.

The author Rachel McKenna will give a lecture on Thursday 7 December to Offaly History at Bury Quay, Tullamore at 8 p.m. This is a public lecture so do go along. Rachel will sign copies of the book and you get a chance to meet lots of other people and enjoy Christmas-style refreshments.

This book was really sparked by the Offaly County Council interaction with the Follies Trust.

Perhaps you never heard of this. In their own words:

The Follies Trust aims to encourage – throughout the island of Ireland – the conservation, preservation, restoration and protection, in their original setting, of mausolea and monuments; follies; grottoes; garden buildings and other structures of particular beauty or historic, environmental, architectural or industrial significance.

In 2012 representatives of the Follies Trust contracted Offaly County Council and toured the county for a day to see if there was a suitable folly for a partnership conservation project. The Dillon Family, owners of Mullagh Tower, in Killurin provided the ideal project. The tower is visible for many miles around and needed conservation work to keep it in good repair, more in the nature of ‘a stitch in time’.  This work was completed in 2014. It will be familiar to many readers and especially Sunday morning cyclists heading to Killeigh, Geashill and Ballyboy.

Mullagh Tower after conservation work

Many of us are familiar with the Acres folly in Tullamore viewed from the Town Park, the pyramid in Kinnitty and perhaps the ‘round tower’ at Belview near Durrow. Nonetheless the Follies Trust visit brought follies as a group of buildings into focus.  Good information was recorded on but the county had not got a comprehensive study or full listing. In 2013 with Heritage Council support, Offaly County Council commissioned a study of eleven follies in Offaly which was carried out by conservation architects Howley Hayes.  This report can be seen on Howley was the ideal person for the study as he had a deep interest and had already published ‘The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland’ with  Yale. Some readers will have met him at the Durrow Abbey Conservation Plan meetings which he did for the OPW, the works to conserve Daingean Courthouse or during the preparation of the Rahan Conservation Plan.

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Inner entrance gate at Birr Castle after medieval style

The Offaly follies report was a condition survey and measured drawings which served to highlight the even bigger question of who built these follies, how, when and why? At that stage county architect with Offaly County Council, Rachel McKenna began work in earnest researching the demesnes and the families to build up a more complete picture.  As Jane Maxwell, Senior Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin (and a proud Offaly woman) said as she launched the book in Birr Castle a few weeks ago

Not content with what we can see with our own eyes, we are helped to understand the landscape in which each building sits, or sat, its relationship to the house for which it was originally designed. We are provided with context in terms of the different styles of follies, changing fashions of landscape gardening, the evolution in domestic architecture. We are provided with the context in terms of the history of the family associated with the various estates. The amount of research enclosed between these covers is phenomenal. As an archivist I am gratified way at the range of materials our author has called into play. No archives, no library, no map room or pamphlet collection, in the country, went unmolested during this project’

Jane Maxwell’s launching Follies at Birr Castle. courtesy of the Tullamore Tribune

A sincere thanks is due to all of the owners of the follies who facilitated the survey, access to their land and assisted with photos, sources and images.

This is a fine publication mixing the detailed research and illustrations of Rachel McKenna with fine photographs by James Fraher, archival material, family portraits and studies of the big house and demesne in which the folly sits. In that way it is the first study to be published of houses and demesnes in Offaly other than those of Birr Castle and Charleville Castle.  It is to Rachel’s credit that she also designed the book.

So all are invited to the illustrated talk on Thursday 7 December at Offaly History Centre (beside Tullamore DEW) and your personalised signed copy of this unique and engaging book.

Connie Hanniffy (owner of Ballycumber gazebo), Angela Kelly, Eamonn Larkin, Katherine Quinn, William Cornally (owner of Prospect tower) and Larry Fleming pictured at Birr Castle, courtesy of the Tullamore Tribune.