Friday, 1 September 2017

The Staircase of 
Eyrecourt Castle
 Co. Galway

A rare photograph of the entrance hall of Eyrecourt showing  the impressive carved staircase before its removal from the house in the 1920's

The current fate of the elaborate staircase from one of Galway’s lost country houses reminds me of the final scene of the film 'The Raiders of the Lost Ark'. An elderly gentleman is seen pushing a box through a warehouse filed with unopened timber crates containing unknown treasures. One wonders if the warehouse of the Detroit Institute of Art is as vast, as it is here that the staircase of Eyrecourt Castle from Co. Galway remains packed in boxes, unopened, since it left Ireland in the 1920's purchased by William Randolph Hearst. As this piece of our national architectural heritage lies forgotten and overlooked in the US, certainly the time has come to repatriate this piece of unique craftsmanship back to its homeland of Galway?

Eyrecourt Castle as it appeared in a sketch from 1854
Eyrecourt also known as Eyrecourt Castle, was a house in Co. Galway that was built in the 1660’s. It was described as a two storey over basement house with a high dormered attic. At the apex of the roof was a flat platform which was surrounded by rails that allowed members of the family to access the roof and view the surrounding country side. What could be seen from this vantage point was the land owned by the Eyre family, as the estate lands once extended to 48,000 acres.The interior of the house had a square foot print which was divided up by two thick internal walls that housed the four chimney stacks. It was one of the first Irish country houses built on a symmetrical plan and was also one of the earliest examples of an undefended country house in Ireland, as it predecessors would have been tower houses and castles. It was built by John Eyre, a colonel in the Cromwellian army, who was rewarded with Irish land for his loyalty. The exterior had the appearance of a heavy eaved Dutch style house with a high pitched roof. One of the most impressive elements of the exterior was a carved entrance door case. This door case included an oval fan light above which rested a carved panel inscribed with the words ‘WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF LIBERTY’.  

A photograph of members of the local hunt in front of Eyrecourt
in the background can be seen the elaborate carving 

of the door case .
John Eyre who built the Eyrecourt had marred Mary Bigoe from Offaly, he entered Parliament and became an Irish Privy Councillor after 1680. This marriage had a significant effect on the construction of the house as his new wife’s family owned a glass works which is said to have contributed to the fifty windows that the house possessed. The large amount of openings in the structure of the house is said to have contributed to collapse of the building in later years when it became ruinous. Despite having an abundance of windows it was said that none of them actually opened to provide ventilation. At the time of Eyrecourt's construction, it was the common held opinion that any substantial home especially the one of an up and coming gentleman should have a large and imposing staircase. Therefore John Eyre certainly wished to impress visitors to his home as one third of the floor area of his new house was occupied by the staircase. It was said that to have been carved in Holland and shipped to Galway to be installed in Eyrecourt however some sources say that Dutch craftsman came to Galway and made the staircase in situ. The newel posts of the staircase were topped by carved urns filled with flowers and upon entering the house one was faced with the coat of arms of John Eyre and his wife Mary Bigoe. This grand staircase provided access to the principal reception room which were situated on the first floor of the house. The staircase had two flights which met on the half landing which returned on itself one hundred and eighty degrees and continued on as a single flight to the first floor. One visitor to the house in 1835, Samuel Leigh, noted that the house ‘has a curious and handsome staircase’

 
A sketch of the staircase in Eyrecourt by Lady Gregory
from Coole Park
Over the years the house passed through members of the family, a large amount of the recipients in each generation were named John possibly after the man who built the house. The first John Eyre,  who built Eyrecourt,  was succeeded by his son also named John who died in 1709. He in turn was succeeded by his son, George who died in 1711 without issue and was therefore succeeded by his brother named John. This John married the daughter of Lord Louth and the union produced two sons John and Giles. After the death of their father in 1741, meant John came into possession of the estate. He had married but this union produced a daughter who predeceased him by two years. When John died in 1745, the estate went to his brother Giles. He was the Dean of Killaloe and when he died in 1757, he was succeeded by his son named John. John Eyre was elevated to the peerage in 1768 and he became Baron Eyre of Eyrecourt. He married and the union produced a daughter, Mary who married the Hon. Francis Caulfield, the third son of Viscount Charlemont, and they had a son named James Eyre Caulfield. Unfortunately Mary, Francis and James died in 1775 when the ship on which they were travelling sank during a hurricane during their passage from Ireland to London. When Lord Eyre died in 1781, his title died with him, so he was the first and last Lord Eyre.  The estate passed to his nephew Giles who died in 1830, after which Eyrecourt  passed to his eldest son by his first wife, another heir name John. The large rent roll of the Eyre Estate had allowed members of the family to indulge their passion for hunting. At Eyrecourt there was once kept a stable of 40 horses, also the noise from the hounds kenneled there would disturb the solemn atmosphere of the Sunday service in the nearby church. However this extravagance coupled with the loss of £80,000 on an unsuccessful election in 1811 resulted in the estate appearing for sale in the Encumbered Estates schedule in 1854. The Eyre Family managed to hang on to Eyrecourt but by 1883, the Eyres were again considered insolvent.

A map of Eyrecourt showing the house and stables
John Eyre who now owned the estate was born in April 1820, he married Eleanor Maria Moore in October 1846 and the marriage produced twelve children. He died in April 1890 and the estate was inherited by his third son William Henry Gregory Eyre as two elder brothers had died in 1878 and 1881. In the 1901 census Gregory Henry Gregory Eyre, an assistant Land Commissioner aged 40 and unmarried, lived in the house with his mother Eleanor and his 22 year old niece Isobell together with their 4 servants and their gardener. By the time of 1911 census, the house was occupied by Eleanor Maria aged 85 and her daughter Bessie Caroline, a widow, aged 44. They lived in the house with their butler, gardener, cook and three maids. The house is described as having 36 rooms and 21 out buildings. In 1915, during the First World War, George Haberer, a German who was employed as a butler at Eyrecourt was arrested and send to the interment camp at Oldcaslte. William Henry Gregory Eyre was a popular gentleman in the local community who had renovated Eyrecourt Castle and had installed electricity.  Eleanor Eyre died in December 1922 and her son William Henry Gregory died in February 1925 aged 64 in a Dublin nursing home. 

Gradually over the years Eyrecourt decayed and descended into
ruin
In March 1926, the sale by public auction of the Estate of William Henry Gregory Eyre was announced in the national press to begin on Tuesday 4th May at 12 o’clock. The estate was to be sold in five lots by Taylor Auctioneers of Portumna Galway. Eyrecourt Castle and its demense of 600 acres was purchased by Richard Howard for £5,000.  The London firm of White Allom, a firm owned by the English decorator Sir Charles Allom, purchased the staircase and other woodwork from Eyrecourt and sold it to William Randolph Hearst. Sir Charles Allom was the decorator of choice for Hearst as he had an impeccable client list having been knighted for his interior decoration of Buckingham Palace for King George V. William Randolph Hearst was the owner of the largest newspaper chain in America and at the time was probably one of the richest men in the world. He purchased the staircase and the panelling from the Eyrecourt as it was to be installed in his vast mansion under construction in California called San Simeon which would eventually extend to 165 rooms and sat at the centre of a 40,000 acre estate. In the late 1920’s William Randolph Hearst was touring Europe satisfying his hunger for collecting art, antiques and architectural salvage. As well as collecting these unique architectural treasures he was also looking for a castle as a base in Europe, which he found in St. Dona’s in South Wales. It was here that the panelling from the drawing room of Eyrecourt was installed as Hearst intended to renovate the castle to suit his needs. This included the installation of over sixty bathrooms for house parties where the guest list might extend to over one hundred guests. It was at this time that Hearst began to increase his consumption of items that might be suitable for any one of his homes. Allom began sourcing fireplaces and other items for the Welsh castle and kept Heart abreast of auctions and items of interest. Telegrams crossed the Atlantic which informed Hearst of ceilings, staircases, fireplaces and even barns were coming up for sale.  In an exhibition catalogue from London in 1928, a panelled room from Eyrecourt is advertised. It is reported that an exhibition of works of art organised by the Daily Telgraph included pine paneling and chimney piece taken from Eyrecourt. In the report it states that the paneling has never been painted, however the curators of the exhibition decided to paint it green and silver so it would harmonise with the furniture that was featured in the same display. After he staircase was sold to Hearst, it was removed from the house in a number of crates, it crossed the Atlantic and was deposited in one of his vast warehouses in the Bronx in New York. One of these ware houses was a five storey building where staff were employed to photograph and catalogue the collection. To have some understanding of the nature of Hearst insatiable habit of collecting, one warehouse in 1937 was found to contain 10,700 crates which contained the stones of a Spanish monastery. From 1937, Hearst began to divest himself of some of his collection as the Great Depression was beginning to affect his finances. Hearst died in 1951, aged 88 and in 1958 the staircase from Eyrecourt was donated to the Detroit Institute of Art where it remains in storage. In 1973 and attempt was made to have the staircase returned to Ireland. By 1975, Desmond Guinness said that The Detroit Art Institute was interested in a proposal to swap the staircase for a number of American Indian artifacts contained in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. However the deal foundered and the staircase remains in the US. Gradually what remained of Eyrecourt in Galway collapsed and today is barely recognisable as the magnificent house it once was.

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