A thesis waits to be written on the links between country house construction in Ireland and the history of the national economy.* There have been waves of building here and these were often aligned with agricultural prices: the better the annual return, the more likely houses would be erected, reconstructed or enlarged. Contrarily in lean times the amount of such work tailed off. In its present incarnation Hilton Park, County Monaghan exemplifies this phenomenon, since the house was last overhauled in the early 1870s, sufficiently after the Great Famine for the country’s agriculture to have recovered and not long before the onset of the following decade’s Land Wars which, coupled with the arrival of cheap grain and meat from the other side of the Atlantic, saw land values, and therefore estate owners’ incomes, precipitously decline towards the end of the 19th century. The land on which the house stands was purchased in 1734 by the Rev. Samuel Madden, the origins of whose family appear to lie in descent from a branch of the ancient O Madaidhin or O’Madden clan. One of his forebears became based in Oxfordshire in the 15th century and the first proven ancestor is John Mudwyn, one of whose sons Thomas Mudwyn settled in this country where he served as Comptroller of the Household to Sir Thomas Wentworth, later first Earl of Strafford during his time as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. John Mudwyn’s surname became Madden, as it has remained ever since, and the Rev Samuel Madden was his great-grandson. This gentleman was commonly known as ‘Premium’ Madden, derived both from a provision in his will providing for premiums for Irish-made goods to the Dublin Society and from having been the founder of the ‘Madden Premium’ in Trinity College, Dublin (first given in 1718). Author of a play Themistocles, the Lover of his Country: a Tragedy (1729), he also wrote a work of speculative, and satiric, fiction called Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733). Dedicated to Frederick, Prince of Wales, to whom Madden had been tutor, the book was suppressed Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole a fortnight after its publication. More influential was Madden’s Reflections and Resolutions Proper for the Gentlemen of Ireland which appeared in 1731 and embodied many of the aspirations behind the formation of the Dublin (later the Royal Dublin) Society which he co-founded the same year. No wonder Dr Johnson declared ‘His was a name which Ireland ought to honour.’
As mentioned above, in 1734 Samuel Madden bought some 4,000 acres of what subsequently became the Hilton estate. Once called Killshanless this had been land originally owned by the MacMahons but acquired through purchase in the 17th century by the Forth family. It was sold by them to Samuel Madden who appears to have spent some time there: Mrs Delany visited in August 1748 and wrote that the place ‘is pretty; a very fine wood of all sorts of forest trees, planted by Dr Madden just by the house, surrounded by a fine river.’ Following Dr Madden’s death in 1765 the property passed to his third son, John Madden. By then evidently there was a house called Maddenton, perhaps incorporating elements of an earlier building on the site, of seven bays and two storeys with tall brick chimney stacks. This survived until 1803 when the greater part of it was accidentally destroyed by fire after a servant set down a bucket of hot coals on the floor. The disaster was compounded by the fact that then-owner Colonel Samuel Madden of the Monaghan Militia was a ne’er-do-well gambler who ran through the family money and had to face his creditors two years before he died in 1814. The estate itself was only preserved thanks to the prudence of the Colonel’s father-in-law, the Rev Charles Dudley Ryder who kept the greater part of his own fortune to pass on to his grandson. But in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the family moved into what had been the servants’ quarters in the upper stableyard. Rebuilding did not begin until the first half of the 1830s, with the focus being on the rooms at the south side of the house which looked down to the lake: the dining room and a bedroom immediately above retain their decoration from this period. The finished house, the design of which is assigned to James Jones of Dundalk and the appearance of which can still be seen in old family photographs, had a long eastern facade of two storeys over basement and eleven bays. The centre five of these projected slightly, a flight of stone steps leading to the rather meanly proportioned entrance door. All this work and more (a new nursery wing to the north) was undertaken by Colonel John Madden of the Monaghan Militia who was able to benefit from his wise maternal grandfather’s inheritance and was as industrious as some of his forebears: he became a noted breeder of Shorthorn cattle and hackney horses, and built the Ride, a colonnade for exercising horses on wet days under his study window. A keen sailor and member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, he won a race around Ireland and sailed to the Mediterranean, bringing back from Naples a chimney piece now found in the drawing room. He also built a villa at Sandycove, Dublin and it was there he died in 1844.
Colonel Madden’s heir, another John, was not yet eight when his father died and was duly made a Ward of Court. Throughout his life John Madden held strong views not always shared by others of his class and background. As a young man he joined Isaac Butt’s Home Rule Party but failed to get elected in any of the elections he fought. In addition, in 1869 he was dismissed as a Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for County Monaghan after contravening the 1850 Party Processions Act (which prohibited open marching, organised parades and sectarian meetings in Ireland) and for using using ‘language of studied insult to the government of the Queen’. (The Countess of Dartrey who lived elsewhere in the county described him at the time as ‘a semi-madman, who stood as a Tory Home Ruler for Monaghan in 1868, and wrote such outrageous letters that he was struck off the list of JPs.’)
More interestingly from our perspective, this John Madden carried out a sequence of improvements and allterations on his estate, beginning at age 19 with the sinking of a 135-foot well from which Hilton still draws its water: two years later he erected a bell tower of some 70 feet. In the aftermath of his abortive political ambitions, he engaged the gardener and landscape architect Ninian Niven, former curator of the National Botanic Gardens, to remodel Hilton’s parkland. Soon afterwards Madden embarked on a transformation of the house, initially consulting Sir Charles Lanyon but eventually settling for William Hague who today is primarily known for his work on public buildings, in particular Roman Catholic churches (he designed or altered between forty and fifty across the country). Cost may have been a factor in his selection, but also the fact that Hague was more likely to take direction from his client than would the established Lanyon. Hague’s intervention is immediately apparent on the exterior of the building, around which the ground was excavated some eight feet to create a new ground floor in what had hitherto been the basement. Access to the house was no longer gained at the top of a flight of steps, so to ensure protection against the era’s growing agrarian unrest a steel front door and shutters were installed. Meanwhile the facade, now fronted in sandstone and with a rusticated ground floor, was given a vast porte cochêre with a line of Italianate Ionic columns and pilasters beneath a pediment carrying the Madden coat of arms carved in Portland stone. The first floor pedimented windows have the long proportions of the late Georgian period but plate glass of the Victorian, while those above retain their sashes. Around the corner on the south side plans were drawn up for a central pavilion with an octagonal drawing room and matching wings but these were not carried out, a blessing according to the late Jeremy Williams since the outcome ‘would have given the house the semblance of a vast hotel to overwhelm the lake below.’
Internally, Hilton Park looks much as it did when Madden and Hague had finished their work on the building around 1878. The front door gives access to a hall with encaustic tiles and barrel vaulted ceiling: on either side a former pantry and housekeeper’s room became a study and smoking room respectively. Double doors open to the stair hall in carved oak which climbs to the first floor reception rooms. On the upper section of the west wall are a pair of heraldic stained glass windows made by Mayer & Co of London: between them is a niche holding a bust of ‘Premium’ Madden. At the top of the stairs a door to the immediate left opens into what had been a vast double drawing room: for reasons of practicality (and heat conservation) this was divided in two in the last century when the central timber archway was filled in. The northern section has a heavily carved Victorian chimney piece, the southern contains that brought back from Naples by the earlier John Madden. A boudoir to the north completes this run of reception rooms, ample enough to host a ball. Meanwhile at the centre of the south side of the house is the dining room which did not undergo refurbishment in the 1870s and therefore remains as designed by Jones forty years earlier; vaguely gothic in intent, it has sprung vaulting featuring oaks and ropes initiated from foliate corbels in each corner, but a classical black marble chimney piece. So too do the bedrooms above, the walls of one still covered in a pretty blue floral paper hung in the 1830s. Although much has changed in the intervening period, Hilton Park still remains in the hands of the Madden, the ninth generation now responsible for its future. Open to the public for weddings, weekend guests and houseparties (see hiltonpark.ie) it wonderfully exudes much of its original atmosphere, although one suspects that were earlier occupants to return they would be amazed by how much warmer and more comfortable is the house than used to be the case (and how much better the cooking today than it traditionally was in such places). All being well, the Maddens will continue to reside there offering Hilton hospitality for at least another nine generations.