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Blarney Stone

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The Argory, County Armagh

There is a touch of the Marie Celeste about the Argory, as if time had stood still a century ago and its occupants might at any moment return from their vanished world, bringing the place to life. The house is neither large nor grand by nineteenth-century standards. Its importance lies in the remarkable survival of its interior which, unique in Ireland, evokes the atmosphere and ambience of late Victorian country house life.

The Argory was built between 1819 and 1824 by Walter McGeough, alias MacGeough, who assumed the additional name of Bond in 'affectionate regard to the family of his deceased grandmother' upon completion of the house. His decision to build a house here was influenced by his father's will. According to its terms only £400 a year was left to the eldest son William; the bulk of the fortune went to the younger son Walter and his three sisters. Rather curiously, the will stipulated that once Walter married he was no longer allowed to live at Drumsill, the family seat outside Armagh, so long as two of his sisters remained unwed. Although one sister died early, Walter judged correctly that the others would remain husbandless and therefore decided to build his own house on lands he had inherited at Derrycaw, overlooking the River Blackwater.

The commission for the new house went to two young Dublin-based architects, John and Arthur Williamson, almost certainly on the personal recommendation of Francis Johnson who was related to Walter's mother. Surprisingly little is known about the Williamsons, though it is clear from the style of their work at the Argory that they trained in Johnson's office. Most of the original plans and accounts relating to the building were lost in 1898 when a fire broke out in the octagonal pavilion, but it is known that the house was originally designed as a single block with the north wing added later. The Argory has imposing ashlar-faced elevations in a restrained classical style. The centre of its two-storey seven-bay west front breaks forward under a shallow pediment and contains a porch whose doorcase is framed by an elliptical arch and embellished with a squashed fanlight, glazed side panels and a lion's mask. This leads directly into the staircase hall, which once served as the front hall until the 1830s when the main entrance overlooking the river was shifted to the less exposed east side, where a small portico was added.

The staircase hall, or west hall, has been described as one of the most exciting interiors of its date in Ireland. It has a theatrical cantilevered staircase with brass banister supports, marbled walls, colza-oil lamp (converted to gas in 1906) and a large cast-iron stove surmounted by a replica of the Warwick vase. The original 1821 drawings of this stove survive; its flue descends beneath the floor to the drawing-room chimney. The room also has an almost life-size bronze cast of a mastiff, one of two bronzes of dogs which date from 1835 and are early examples of the work of the French animalier Charles Fratin.

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From the Appletree Press title: Irish Country Houses.

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