Wednesday 21 February 2018

Fire crews battle to control blaze at one of Ireland's 'most haunted houses'

Described as a 'cultural tragedy' and a 'blow for Cork's history and heritage'

Credit: Tara O'Sullivan
Credit: Tara O'Sullivan
Credit: Tara O'Sullivan
Pictured: The fire at Mount Vernon (Photo: Twitter/@higginskev)
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

A suspected arson attack which destroyed an historic 18th Century Irish mansion has been described as “a cultural tragedy.”

Massive damage was caused to Vernon Mount House in Cork after a blaze, suspected to be caused by vandals, erupted shortly before 10pm on Sunday night.

At its height, seven units of Cork fire brigade were battling the fire which spread quickly throughout the interior of the property which has been empty for some time.

Brigade units from Macroom and Carrigaline also rushed to Cork to assist city units.

The blaze was so severe the South Link Road had to be temporarily closed to assist emergency services.

The biggest concern is now over the fate of rare art works in the property by Cork artist Nathaniel Grogan.

However, a full assessment of the damage can only be conducted when engineers deem the property, reputed to be the most haunted in Cork, to be structurally safe to enter.

Most of the structure was gutted in the fire whose cause is now under Garda investigation.

The house was the subject of an attack by vandals earlier this month and Cork Co Council confirmed they had raised the incident with the property owner’s agent.

Repairs following that vandal attack were only completed on July 10.

Since 2012, more than €170,000 was spent in a bid to secure and protect Vernon Mount from both vandals and the ravages of the Irish weather.

The Department of Arts & Heritage provided €44,850 in support funds. Cork Co Council insisted it had been assisting the owner to make urgent repairs to the property and described the fire as “most unfortunate.”

“The site is now being treated as a crime scene – presumably arson,”the council said.

Politicians and historians have united to describe the blaze as representing an incalculable loss for the city. An Taisce admitted it was “appalled.”

 “The serious fire damage to Vernon Mount highlights the continuing failure of Irish planning legislation to enforce the maintenance of legally protected historic buildings,” a spokespersons said.

“This is further highlighted by the burning of Belcamp in Fingal last week.”

Last month, An Taisce had pleaded for the building to be donated to the council so it could be protected after it was repeatedly targeted by vandals.

Former Lord Mayor of Cork Councillor Chris O'Leary said there were fears that priceless parts of Cork heritage could now be lost forever.

 Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin described the fire damage as “a blow for Cork history and heritage.”

Former Green Party TD Dan Boyle said the sheer scale of the damage left him feeling “angry and frustrated.”

Twenty years ago a proposed hotel development focused on the propertywas rejected.

The house was since plagued by water damage and dry rot.

Prophetically, residents feared the structure, ranked as one of the World’s 100 Most Endangered Buildings, was at imminent risk of loss.

The Irish Georgian Society (IGS) placed it on its watch list in 2007 after it expressed concerns it was in “a desperate state of neglect”.

Vernon Mount was built in 1784 and was a protected structure.

The Georgian mansion was built for Cork merchant, Atwell Hayes, who named it after George Washington’s famous Virginia home as a mark of admiration for the American Revolution.

However, far from emulating the scrupulously correct General Washington, the merchant’s son, Sir Henry Browne-Hayes, later abducted a young heiress, Mary Pike, to secure her £20,000 dowry.

Browne-Hayes was eventually arrested and the young woman freed though she was so traumatised she suffered from mental illness for the rest of her life.

The merchant was convicted, sentenced to death but then commuted to transportation to Australia.

Legend has it that the Cork mansion has since been haunted by the spirit of the deranged young woman and it ranks alongside Loftus Hall in Wexford as one of the most haunted structures in the country.

The Irish Georgian Society has described Vernon Mount as “a neoclassical gem” and “an extraordinary suburban villa”.

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