Vernon Mount perished recently in a fiery death which was long foretold.
For over 15 years in the hand of American property developers she had been abused, vandalised and warning signs ignored. Having all the privileges of owning Irish land seemingly the absentee owners had no responsibility for the land or its historic contents. On the night of Saturday 23rd of July this unique part of our nation’s patrimony, the work of Irish craftsmen which stood for 232 years went up in flames. A destruction long foretold, which surprised no one. and has led to the usual craw thumping gush from politicians and a local authority which did not do its job.
The historic house with its striking curvilinear fronted facade dates from 1784 and had been included in the World Monuments Fund List of 100 Most Endangered Sites after being alerted to the existence of the property and its endangered status by the Irish Georgian Society. The house, which has panoramic views of the estuary of the River Lee was named after Mount Vernon on the Potomac River, the home of the first President of the United States of America, George Washington. built c. 1784 by Sir Henry Browne Hayes (1762-1832), a scion of glass making and distilling businesses. Hayes called his new villa Vernon Mount, a name that derives from the enthusiasm for George Washington and the American War of Independence which was so much admired in Ireland. In the same vein as the American colonies, Ireland also desired its legislative independence and free trade with the rescinding of the Navigation Acts.
It was designed by architect, Abraham Hargrave for Cork merchant called Attiwell Hayes, and was passed on to his son, Sir Henry Brown Hayes who became a notorious figure after he was said to have kidnapped a local heiress, Mary Pike, in July 1797. Brown Hayes brought Ms Pike to Vernon Mount for a fake marriage but she managed to escape and Brown Hayes went on the run. He surrendered after two years and was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted and he was sent to Botany Bay before being pardoned in 1812.
The house survived the War of Independence and the Civil War when many estate homes in Cork and elsewhere were burned and it remained a family home until it was purchased in 1958 by the Cork and Munster Motorcycle Club who built a motor-cross race track on the parkland. In 1997, it was bought by developers led by San Diego based IT entrepreneur Jonathon Moss but Cork County Council refused the group planning permission to redevelop the house and build houses/apartments on the site.
Since the mid-20th century, the condition of the house has deteriorated, mainly due to wood rot, roof damage, rain ingress, and vandalism. Occasional efforts have been undertaken by Cork County Council to arrest the decline. While much of the former 160 acres around the villa has been built over. Mr Moss remains the principal owner of the house and the motorcycle club leases the grounds. The building fell into disrepair but a local voluntary group, the Grange Frankfield Partnership was formed in 2010 to campaign for the conservation and restoration of Vernon Mount. Extensive roof repairs were carried out by Cork County Council with grant aid from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in 2012 which involved the replacement of 60 per cent of the roof and repair of the remaining 40 per cent.
The house is notable for its curved front, complimented by bows on either side while its interior features include an elegant cantilevered staircase with a neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, a fine oval first-floor landing with marble Corinthian columns. The decorative plasterwork, ceiling and wall paintings by Cork artist, Nathaniel Grogan are particularly noteworthy and it is feared that these have been damaged or destroyed in the fire which was visible from many parts of Cork city.
The Irish Georgian Society has called for urgent State action to save what remains of historic Vernon Mount House in Cork, which was gutted in the suspected arson attack. But is it the function of the Irish State to “fumble in a greasy till. And add the halfpence to the pence” for private owners who with the land and property of Vernon Mount had obligations as well as rights? Is it the function of the Irish state and its taxpayers to add to Cork County Council’s and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht grants already paid to repair a now smouldering roof on this private property?
Time and again we hear about the rights of property and of property owners. What about for balance a little about the obligations of property owners to maintain their land, not cause a nuisance and to maintain historic structures on that land? We do not more need empty words to add to the avalanche of verbiage from hand wringing politicians and paid officials who did not do their job. The ease with which our heritage can be traded and destroyed by our own gombeens and foreign speculators goes to the very competence of the Irish State. As does how we look after the health of our people, how we provide for them economically, how we regulate banks, our truly laughable “regulation” of insurance companies, our non-regulation of a deeply self serving Legal profession, our protection of children, our provision of housing, our protection from flooding, our protection from terrorism and much, much more.
It is time for the Irish State to assert its competence and not in the tradition of the moral contagion of transferring private risk to the public purse at the expense of overtaxed and overburdened families earning a living. Let Vernon Mount be the peg in the ground. Use existing legislation to ensure this unique and destroyed part of our Nation’s patrimony and its grounds are restored brick by brick at the expense of its neglectful and uncaring owners. If the private owners fail to do so let there be no equivocation. Seize the asset and pursue the owners Jonathon Moss & Co. and show that the Irish State has some basic competence and property has obligations and not just rights.
Now that would be in the revolutionary tradition of the original owner of Mount Vernon, one George Washington.