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beach beauty Inside the €1.75m Skerries villa built by a mystery millionaire who gave his fortune away

The Victorian era property on half an acre is located in the heart of the north County Dublin town and has its own access to the beach

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Dorn Hall on Harbour Road, Skerries has sea views on both sides

Dorn Hall on Harbour Road, Skerries has sea views on both sides

Dorn Hall's grounds have access to Skerries beach

Dorn Hall's grounds have access to Skerries beach

The garden 'folly' with a recessed viewing seat

The garden 'folly' with a recessed viewing seat

Skerries garden

Skerries garden

The main reception room features what is believed to be a Robert Adam fireplace

The main reception room features what is believed to be a Robert Adam fireplace

Skerries kitchen

Skerries kitchen

The early Victorian-style stonework at what was originally the front of the house

The early Victorian-style stonework at what was originally the front of the house

The gardens and grounds extend to half an acre with sea views on both side

The gardens and grounds extend to half an acre with sea views on both side

Skerries yard

Skerries yard

Skerries picture window

Skerries picture window

Many of the original features, including stucco works and statue recesses, remain intact

Many of the original features, including stucco works and statue recesses, remain intact

IP Dorn Hall 19 Harbour Roade Skerries. Brother and sister Ciara and Jim Boylan. Pic. Bryan Meade 17/05/2021

IP Dorn Hall 19 Harbour Roade Skerries. Brother and sister Ciara and Jim Boylan. Pic. Bryan Meade 17/05/2021

James Boylan whose father, Joe, bought the property in the 1970s and converted it back from flats

James Boylan whose father, Joe, bought the property in the 1970s and converted it back from flats

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Dorn Hall on Harbour Road, Skerries has sea views on both sides

Dorn Hall, Skerries, Co Dublin Asking price: €1.75m Agent: Sherry Fitzgerald Cumisky Kelly (01) 6913000 and Lisney (01) 8536016

Francis Gowan of Skerries was a man of mystery. In his younger years he crossed the Atlantic to seek his fortune and returned home hugely wealthy in the 1850s when he was still only in his thirties. He became a sort of Victorian era Chuck Feeney, devoting the next four decades to giving much of his fortune away.

Born in 1813 to a middle class family, local lore asserts that a young Francis headed to the United States, where his influential cousin Anthony Ellis was already established in New York. They say Francis made a fast but respectable fortune in the stock markets.

But the 1856 deeds for the land he bought at Red Island, Skerries, on his return, has Francis describing himself as a ‘retired farmer’ whose prior address was at St Boniface, Winnipeg, Canada.

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Dorn Hall's grounds have access to Skerries beach

Dorn Hall's grounds have access to Skerries beach

Dorn Hall's grounds have access to Skerries beach

Far removed from farming, St Boniface was then a hub of the international fur trade (think of the recent movie The Revenant).

It was also a raucous hotspot for fur smuggling amidst tensions between an established French/native populace and the British-owned Hudson Bay Company which controlled Manitoba and also
the global fur trade. Could he have made his money secretly from fur? Or perhaps in land speculation from St Boniface?

In any case, Gowan arrived home with trunks of exotic seashells, whalebones and pots of lolly. Almost immediately he built a grand house and began divesting his loot to charities.

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The garden 'folly' with a recessed viewing seat

The garden 'folly' with a recessed viewing seat

The garden 'folly' with a recessed viewing seat

It was customary in that era for newspapers to publish lists of benefactors and sums donated. From the 1850s to the 1880s, Gowan appears again and again on the lists, habitually furnishing amounts of £100 (about €15,000 today) but also handing over sums of up to £1,000 (€150,000).

The published details of his larger gifts (smaller amounts would not feature) read like a potted social history of Ireland and Europe.

Among those getting £100 or more were: a fund for French peasants destitute after the Franco Prussian War; a fund for the rebuilding of Jervis Street Hospital; a fund for the Pope (following the invasion and annexation of the Papal states by a newly independent Italy); a testimonial for Irish nationalist leader Isaac Butt; a fund for disabled French war veterans; a defence fund for Charles Stewart Parnell; a fund for the Propagation of the Faith, and various funds for the care of children of leading citizens who died young, including an Irish MP and a local doctor.

Gowan also donated £400 for the construction of a Presentation convent and £1,000 for the construction of the Holy Faith convent in Skerries. After he died in 1908, he left £4,000 (€600,000).

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The gardens and grounds extend to half an acre with sea views on both side

The gardens and grounds extend to half an acre with sea views on both side

The gardens and grounds extend to half an acre with sea views on both side

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But Gowan had also experienced grief. His wife Mary died (he later remarried) and so did five of his children at ages one month, 3, 12, 14 and 21. Wealth offered no immunity from that era’s particular ills and diseases.

He built Red Island House (later Dorn Hall) in 1856 with sea views on two sides. It’s still one of grandest in Skerries. Standing at 4,000 sq ft, it is distinctly Georgian on one side and part stone-faced in the early Victorian Gothic style on the other. It was later renamed Dorn Hall when the Red Island Holiday Camp opened in the 1940s.

The land around the house rises to a hill on one side and here Gowan used the exotic sea shells and whalebones collected through his travels to decorate a ‘gentleman’s folly’ — an ornate one room private garden retreat and also a recessed viewing seat from which to look out across the sea to Lambay Island.

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The main reception room features what is believed to be a Robert Adam fireplace

The main reception room features what is believed to be a Robert Adam fireplace

The main reception room features what is believed to be a Robert Adam fireplace

He furnished the house with a flourish, investing in a remarkable series of stucco works and statue recesses. The original chimney pieces are elaborately carved and a white marble version is a suspected Robert Adam. A mahogany example added later by the Rynne family is said to have come from Lily Langtry’s London home. So it’s possible that King Edward VII toasted his toes before it.

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Many of the original features, including stucco works and statue recesses, remain intact

Many of the original features, including stucco works and statue recesses, remain intact

Many of the original features, including stucco works and statue recesses, remain intact

The floor of the study, known as the Compass Room, is inlaid with an ebony and oak compass. The earth’s axis has moved since the 1850s, so it no longer points true North.

After time in the ownership of the Bowler Geraghty and Rynne families, the property was bought in the 1970s by local carpenter and skilled boat builder Joe Boylan and his wife Carmel. Joe’s son James recalls how his late father totally refurbished the run-down house and converted it back from flats.

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James Boylan whose father, Joe, bought the property in the 1970s and converted it back from flats

James Boylan whose father, Joe, bought the property in the 1970s and converted it back from flats

James Boylan whose father, Joe, bought the property in the 1970s and converted it back from flats

“He made every one of the replacement sash windows and he restored every bit of cornicing. Later he’d build his mermaid class boats in the sheds. The last winning boat he completed was called ‘This Is It’. The one he left unfinished was named ‘That’s That.’”

“Later on I redid the whole roof, took down all the original tiles and replaced them, so the roof is good.”

Now the house is for sale for €1.75m, through Sherry Fitzgerald Cumisky Kelly and Lisney, with a half acre and sea views on two sides. You can walk out of the grounds and on to the beach, and behind there’s the harbour.

The upper floor has three halls, an entrance hall, a main hall with ornate elliptical ceiling, and inner hall. There’s a sitting room, drawing room, study, kitchen and a breakfastroom. There are three bedrooms on this floor (one ensuite) and a main bathroom. Downstairs are three quite large self-contained units; some need work. There’s also a courtyard, a boathouse, and a garage.

And at the high point in the garden is Francis Gowan’s contemplative ‘folly’, still encrusted today with the gnarly fruits of his mysterious travels.

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