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Building of the Month - May 2009

Fota House, FOATY Td., Fota Island, County Cork

To coincide with the launch by Minister Gormley of the NIAH East Cork Survey, and the accompanying publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of East Cork, Fota House has been selected as the Building of the Month for May 2009.  The Irish Heritage Trust, a charity created in 2006 for the care of historic houses and gardens throughout Ireland, took over the management of Fota House in December 2007.  Here KEVIN BAIRD, Chief Executive Officer of the Trust, gives a brief architectural appraisal of the house.

Fota House 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: A view of the Entrance Front of Fota House as redeveloped in the early nineteenth century to a design by Richard Morrison (1767-1849) working in collaboration with his son William Vitruvius Morrison (1794-1838).  Originally a modest hunting lodge, the Morrisons added projecting bays at either end – pedimented on the Entrance Front; bowed on the Garden Front – centred on a handsome Doric portico of cut-limestone

Fota House would have been a very different place were it not for the exertions of John Smith-Barry (1793-1837) of Marbury Hall (demolished 1968), Cheshire.  Having decided in the early nineteenth century to make Fota his permanent Irish home Smith-Barry commissioned Richard Morrison (1767-1849) and his son, William Vitruvius Morrison (1794-1838), to adapt and extend an existing hunting lodge, a modest square block, into the stately mansion we see today (fig. 1).

A formidable architectural team with a national profile, the Morrisons had a number of projects underway across Ireland at the time of the reconstruction of Fota House including the Tudor Kilruddery House (1820-9; RM/WVM), County Wicklow; and the Classical Ballyfin House (1822: RM/WVM), County Laois.  Prominent public commissions included the neo-Classical courthouses at Carlow (1828-34; WVM) and Tralee (18282: WVM), County Kerry.  The elder Morrison would later be knighted (1841) as Sir Richard Morrison largely in recognition of his role in the foundation (1839) of the Institute of the Architects of Ireland.  William Vitruvius, meanwhile, had embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe as part of his architectural education: his studies of Classical antiquity there would have great repercussions on the appearance of the "new" Fota House.

Declining an Elizabethan makeover credited solely to the younger Morrison, Smith-Barry settled on a Classical scheme, a collaboration between father and son, which would ultimately integrate the hunting lodge with more ease.  This was achieved by removing the internal partitions of the existing block, thereby opening-up the ground floor as a central hall.  Additional blocks at either end, unimpeded by ceiling height restrictions, were created to house the principal dining room (north) and drawing room (south).

Fota House 02 - Hall Fota House 03 - Smith-Barry Crest

Figures 2-3: A view of the hall remodelled by the Morrisons featuring columnar screens of yellow scagliola, the Ionic capitals surmounted by the Smith-Barry crest

The centrepiece of the country house remains the remodelled hall, one of the finest neo-Classical interiors in Ireland (fig. 2).  Entered through a Roman Doric portico carved from blue limestone, the progression of the Classical order culminates in the Grecian columnar screens replacing the previous partitions.  Paired Ionic columns in a rich yellow scagliola, a simulated marble produced from marble chips, give a strong architectural character to the space: the Smith-Barry crest, previously seen on the parapet of the portico, is executed in plaster above the Ionic capitals of the central pillars (fig. 3).  The forced perspective of the hall is cleverly elongated by views through to niches at each extremity: the niches feature plaster reproductions of urns designed by Richard Morrison for Lyons House (1802-5), County Kildare.

Fota House 04 - Dining Room 

Figure 4: A view of the dining room showing the cool grey Corinthian columnar screen framing a shallow buffet niche.  The late nineteenth-century plasterwork was completed by the firm of Henry Sibthorpe and Son (founded 1747) of Dublin; the plasterwork in the opposing drawing room shows the Percier and Fontaine style favoured by William Vitruvius Morrison

The large dining room, to the left of the hall, also features an elegant columnar screen, in this instance fashioned from a cool grey scagliola with impressive Corinthian capitals (fig. 4).  The ceiling, along with the ceiling of the opposing drawing room, was executed (1890s) by the firm of Henry Sibthorpe and Son (founded 1747) of Dublin.  Acquiring a reputation for generous hospitality, Smith-Barry was fondly monikered "John the Magnificient" and the impressive hall and beautiful suite of reception rooms at Fota House all stemmed from the host's desire to entertain, if not impress visiting guests.

Continued improvements undertaken in the nineteenth century included the billiards room built (1872) to a design by Sir John Benson (1812-74), engineer, while Benson's contemporary conservatory was later adapted (1897) by Arthur Hill (1846-1921) as the present long gallery.

A set of rooms "below stairs" clearly illustrates the hierarchy of the country house.  We say "below stairs" even though a water table precluded a basement; the service ranges are thus contained in a wing.  A perfectly preserved game larder shows how clever design was used to provide a cool room in which game and other perishable items could be stored.

Fota House 05 - Aerial View 

Figure 5: An aerial view of Fota House showing the parterred walled gardens laid out by the Smith-Barrys and tended by generations of their gardeners.  The demesne at Fota once comprised the whole island and surviving estate buildings – including a picturesque "toy fort" folly attributed to John Hargrave (c.1788-1833) of Dublin – add significantly to Ireland's national heritage

Fota House occupies a sheltered wooded island in Cork Harbour and this location affords it the benefits of an extremely benign microclimate crucial to the successful cultivation of bamboos, conifers, ferns, flowering shrubs, palms, trees, and a great diversity of rare and tender perennial plants from many climatic zones.  The horticultural significance of the estate cannot be overstated and has long been renowned for the expertise of the Smith-Barrys and their gardeners.  This tradition has been continued by the Office of Public Works since the sale of the estate in 1975.

Sold by the last of the Smith-Barry family to University College Cork, Fota House had deteriorated by the turn of the new millennium.  A successful restoration of the first floor, however, along with the donation of substantial collections of art and furniture, has contributed significantly to the reinvigoration of the house.  In addition, a range of diverse activities, catering for all ages, might be considered a contemporary spin on John the Magnificient's desire to create a house worthy of the admiration and pleasure of the visitor.

Kevin Baird, Chief Executive Officer of The Irish Heritage Trust (www.irishheritegetrust.ie)

Click here for the record for Fota House 

All photography reproduced courtesy of the Irish Heritage Trust with aerial photograph of Fota House by Michael O'Sullivan from the NIAH publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of East Cork

Fota House 06 - Introduction 


Bence-Jones, Mark, A Guide to Irish Country Houses (London: Constable Press, second edition 1988)

Rowan, Alastair M. (ed.), The Architecture of Richard Morrison and William Vitruvius Morrison (Dublin: Irish Architectural Archive, 1989)

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