A visitor to the Dromana Estate would not be faulted if their first feeling upon arrival was confusion: the gatehouse that greets them from the road is no straightforward structure but a bizarre mélange of far-flung architectural vocabularies. The stonework, the wrought-iron quatrefoils, the pointed windows with their delicate tracery––all of this recalls the cathedrals of the High Gothic. But the bulbous onion dome and spindly minaret-like towers at each of the building’s corners, on the other hand, seem to spring straight from Mughal design. Yet we are in neither the France of Abbot Suger’s Saint-Denis nor the India of Agra Fort; we are at Villierstown in Waterford, where Henry Villiers-Stuart, a Tory MP and the county’s Lord Lieutenant, had the strange structure made to fete his return from his honeymoon. Like a sphinx, half-woman, half-beast, the gatehouse arrests those walking by with the riddle its hybrid body poses to all who pass.
In architecture, a folly is a structure whose primary purpose is aesthetic titillation. The Roman artilleryman-turned-architect Vitruvius canonised three virtues that every good building should strive for: firmitas, venustas, and utilitas, or solidity, beauty, and utility. Follies cast off the latter, pitching into the world off-kilter like a lame horse; their designers are the brick-and-mortar equivalents of the tercento monks who, bleary-eyed from copywork by candlelight, fill the margins of their vellum pages with fantastical chimeras or exotic creatures never seen within the borders of their homeland. Grecian temples are grafted onto the rolling hills of Devon; a Habsburg pleasure palace may play unlikely host to a faux pagoda.
In an article for The New York Times in 1988, the British travel writer Eric Newby claims, ‘It is safe to say that Britain and Ireland contain what must be the known world’s greatest assemblage of follies.’ Such buildings are not without their enthusiasts: the Irish Georgian Society, whose logo is an image of Conolly’s Folly in Co. Kildare, offers books, lectures, and picnic tours of the country’s follies and raises funds for their continued preservation. Yet there is something queer at follies’ core, a void papered over by forms fantastic. Shorn of place and purpose, follies are undiluted semblance. They are what comes from mixing money with cement.
To see a ghost estate is a disturbing experience: block after block of homes unfinished, uninhabited, like a stage set for suburbia awaiting actors. With no one to care for them, lawns are overgrown and left to die; rotted fence posts slump over as though with fatigue; walls still unsided are as grey as the sea before tempest. Without occupants to fill these houses, to furnish them, to brighten them up, blank windows stare out like the empty sockets of a sun-bleached skull. Neighborhoods that never were, these estates are the Irish landscape’s most enduring scar from the Great Recession.
As Ireland’s economy returns from its post-2008 bottoming-out point, the most recent report by the Department of Housing states that the number of ghost estates has gone down sharply from the three thousand that once existed. Yet by the government’s own admission the remaining hundreds of estates, which comprise thousands of empty homes, represent the hardest rehab cases. Like the ornamental hermit’s grottoes that peppered the most fashionable of eighteenth-century gardens, these houses stand like strange and not-quite-believable imitations of life. If follies are at bottom imitations, then ghost estates are follies that ape not Roman temples or Norman abbeys but kingly American sprawl, large and languorous. Devoid of an active present, evacuated of the animating warmth of inhabitation, they are semblance incarnate. They seem and seem and seem; they are surfaces that yield not to depth but only to more surface, again and again and onwards to infinity.
At the time of his death in 1729, William ‘Speaker’ Conolly, the son of a Donegal innkeeper, was by some estimates the richest man in Ireland; despite his Catholic background, Conolly nevertheless managed to stake out a place for himself among a Dublin ruling class that was both Anglo and Anglican. He earned his nickname by ascending to the dominion’s highest seat of power, doing so at a time when the Irish House of Commons over which he would preside was busy drafting a series of Penal Laws meant to drastically curtail the civil liberties of Catholics. When Conolly died, he left his wife, Katherine, a sizable country estate and a large sum of money with which to modify it as she saw fit for the remaining decades of her mortal life.
Perhaps the peak of Mrs Conolly’s architectural ambitions was reached with the Wonderful Barn, a structure which Newby calls ‘almost impossible to describe coherently.’ The folly’s central conical tower, bulbous and blindingly white, juts out incongruously from the centre of an otherwise unremarkable grey farm building. Its sides are speckled with triangular and circular windows; its top is crowned with battlements that give it the appearance of an outsized chess rook. If the Wonderful Barn takes architectural cues from anywhere, it is from Brueghel’s fevered vision of the Tower of Babel: massive, weighty, corkscrewing upward towards the sky, towards the dove-coloured clouds, towards some unbounded and inchoate desire for height.
Like other members of the genteel class who commissioned follies on their Irish estates, Mrs Conolly did so as an act of famine relief, employing local labourers to build shell castles, obelisks, and other strange constructions after the famine of 1740-41 caused disastrous crop failures nationwide. Acts like these, which seem at first blush to be measures of freely given kindness, were a product of the reigning ideas of liberal laissez-faire economics at the time, which held charity to be not merely economically ill-advised but morally corrosive, inducing idleness in those who received it. In view of this, then, construction programmes like the Wonder Barn extracted needless toil out of starving people their overseers were unwilling to simply feed.
George Orwell makes similar observations in Down and Out in Paris and London, his autobiographical account of poverty and homelessness. Orwell’s time in shelters and flea-infested tenements led him to challenge what he calls society’s ‘fetish of manual work’: ‘It is taken for granted,’ he writes, ‘that a beggar does not “earn” his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic “earns” his.’ The proliferation of useless or mostly useless work in modern society––and the insistence that members of the working class derive their social value from employment––is rooted in nothing more, Orwell contends, than ‘fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.’ Such logic seems also to undergird the famine-relief follies that dot Ireland’s landscape: at bottom, such projects are exercises in the upper-class revulsion at the idea both at the idea of giving aid for aid’s sake and––heaven forfend––the enactment of larger systemic changes that would render such aid unnecessary.
In a press conference following the August 2016 EU regulatory decision that Apple owed billions of dollars in back taxes, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager stated that the company’s ‘so-called head office only existed on paper. It has no employees. It has no premises, and it has no real activities.’ Through the creation of ‘ghost companies,’ the corporation reaped the benefit of Ireland’s tax haven status; shiftings its intangible property to Ireland also netted Apple major gains and seemed to supercharge the country’s GDP without in any way influencing the lived experience of the economy on the part of Irish citizens, an effect described by Paul Krugman as ‘leprechaun economics’. This, too, is another way of seeming, another kind of glass-domed falsity constructed in the gardens of the wealthy.
Between 1845 and 1852, the Great Famine dealt the population of Ireland a blow from which it still has not recovered. Killing a million and forcing another million abroad, it sowed a pernicious spirit of emigration that remains deeply rooted within the cultural psyche even today. The current population of Ireland is just short of 4.8 million; the 1841 census conducted by the British counted over eight million souls.
The spate of building projects (both public and private) created in wan-faced response to the Great Famine must be understood in contrast to their mirror: mass tenancy clearances that led to the eviction of hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers. Most forced clearances came on the orders of landlords eager to amalgamate unprofitable smallholdings into larger, more lucrative tracts and to avoid financial responsibility for destitute tenants. Estimates of the number of Irish peasants subjected to forced eviction, which run to half a million, do not include those farmers who gave up their land ‘voluntarily’ in order to qualify for famine relief under the increasingly draconian Poor Laws, which barred admittance into workhouses to anyone with a quarter acre or more. As the surest way to prevent the evicted from squatting on their land was to level any buildings there, some landlords went so far as to induce former tenants to raze their own homes by offering them a small sum in payment. The golden age of folly architecture in Ireland therefore took place against a countervailing wind of unprecedented residential destruction borne by the very class of people who were employed in the building of fantastically useless ruins.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that claimed eighty lives largely due to the cheap, flammable cladding used on the housing block’s exterior, civil planners on the other side of the Irish Sea have faced a reckoning: decades after the start of the pre-crash construction boom, major questions are being raised about the structural soundness of the era’s building projects. In an article for* Engineers Journal* published after the disaster last year, chartered engineer John Brennan cited Ireland’s ‘regulatory system … based on self-certification by owners, designers and builders’ as leading to dangerous vulnerability in the country’s Celtic Tiger housing; asked whether an incident as deadly as Grenfell Tower could happen in Ireland, he concludes, ‘Unfortunately, the answer is yes’. An* Irish Times* piece detailing the ‘appalling’ state of the country’s construction standards gives the example of a flat whose toilets were not connected to the pipes but simply dumped excrement beneath the floor. Are these not follies too, after a fashion: sham houses like sham ruins, counterfeit buildings and Potemkin towns, dwellings built with no thought for the form or substance of the lives led inside them?
Of the type of folly known as the ferme ornée, the most complete example today is Larchill in the north of Kildare. There, what greets visitors is less a farm per se than an Arcadian idyll: acres of splendid countryside in which you will find a dairy in the form of a loggia; a faux-medieval tower encrusted with cockle-shells carefully arranged by the lady of the manor; a mock-Gibraltar whose miniature battlements once looked over naval battles reenacted on the property’s lake; and the Fox’s Earth, a refuge for foxes built after the owner began to rue his own zealous hunting habits.
There is a tension at the heart of the concept of a ferme ornée: the need to hide a farm’s less charming aspects for the sake of fostering fantasy, the desire for the picturesque and lovely that erodes the estate’s ability to function. Ostensibly bucolic snapshots of a vanished world, the ferme ornée instead presents as natural a great deal which is strange: the architecture, with its impossible mash-up of places and times; the menagerie, which frequently brought together exotic strains from far-flung corners of the earth; and the social order upon which estate life is based, which is no natural thing at all. In their honeyed view of farm life,* fermes ornées* presented an image of agrarian existence devoid of agrarian poverty, agrarian hardship. That virtually all fermes ornées have fallen into ruin is a testament to the fundamental instability of the illusions upon which they are built.
If streets and skylines may readily reveal the grandeur of the past in stately façades or the optimism of the present in the glistening metallic swoops and whorls of starchitects, they also yield up––if one is prepared to look more closely––more knotted notions of civic history. Like gold threads glinting from a woollen tapestry, the gleam of monuments and megastructures overlies the warp and weft of broader life into which attitudes about society—and especially the relative positions of the poor and the wealthy—are inextricably woven, legible often in the space between ostentation and actuality.
Where once stood Nelson’s Pillar now stands the Spire: a needle of stainless steel that juts almost four hundred feet into the sky, the world’s tallest sculpture. Built in 2003 at the foot of the GPO, the Spire is verticality and nothing else. Its stylistic blankness carries no dialogue with the city around it, not with the stately Georgian buildings and not with the gaudily colorful shops that line O’Connell Street; today, the structure seems like nothing more than an obelisk commemorating the monetary frippery of the pre-bust Celtic Tiger, an impression not helped by the occasional news stories about the expense of the structure’s maintenance, such as a February 2015 report in *The Journal *that a replacement bulb for the Spire’s crowning light––predicted to cost €10,000––had not been foreseen in the planning stage of the Spire’s construction. What does it say about Dublin that such a structure is at its heart? The official name of the Spire, which I have never heard used, is the Monument of Light. As to who the monument is for or what the light should be illuminating and for what purpose, however, there is no plaque to guide us.