A beautifully-carved stone plaque attached to the wall of a single-room extension built onto the south-west end of the early 18th century St Colman’s church in Farahy, County Cork. As Charles Smith noted in his survey of the county (published 1750) this little structure served as ‘an English Protestant school, with an acre of land set apart by virtue of the statute for the education of poor children in the Protestant religion.’ Perhaps because of its diminutive size, the school does not seem to have lasted long: by the time Nicholas Carlisle produced the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1810 there was no mention of it in the entry on Farahy. One longs to know why Mrs Elizabeth Bridges of the City of London had chosen to endow such an establishment in this part of Ireland in 1721. Farahy today is best-known as the parish beside which stood Bowen’s Court, ancestral home of Elizabeth Bowen which was sadly demolished soon after she sold the estate in 1959.
The above engraving of Bessborough, County Kilkenny is taken from John Preston Neale’s Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland published in six volumes between 1818-1824. It shows the house as originally designed by Francis Bindon around 1744 and without any of its later alterations and additions. As was mentioned last week, the Ponsonby family spent relatively little time on their Irish estate. When William Tighe published his Statistical survey of the County of Kilkenny in 1802 he observed ‘The principal absentee proprietor is the Earl of Bessborough, who possesses 17,000 acres in the county, about 2,000 of which are let forever…Though not inhabited for forty years, the house is kept in excellent order.’
It would appear that the second Earl of Bessborough, who while on his Grand Tour had travelled as far as Greece and Turkey in the company of the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard (who painted him in Turkish costume) preferred to live in England where he enjoyed a successful political career. At Roehampton outside London he commissioned a new house from Sir William Chambers which was then filled with an exceptional collection of classical statuary. Only after his father’s death in 1893 did the third earl visit Bessborough for the first time but he too was an infrequent visitor. When staying in the house with the latter’s heir in 1828 Thomas Creevey wrote that following the first earl’s death two years after building’s completion in 1755, ‘His son left Ireland when 18 years old and having never seen it more, died in 1792. Upon that event his Son, the present Lord Bessborough, made his first visit to the place, and he is not certain whether it was two or three days he staid here, but it was one or the other. In 1808, he and Lady Bessborough came on a tour to the Lakes of Killarney and having taken their own house in their way either going or coming, they were so pleased with it as to stay here a week, and once more in 1812, having come over to see the young Duke of Devonshire at Lismore, when his Father died, they were here a month. So that from 1757 to 1825, 68 years, the family was (here) 5 weeks and two days.’
In 1826 the fourth earl, when still going by the courtesy title of Lord Duncannon, came over to Ireland with his wife and eleven children and, astonishingly, remained here until his death twenty-one years later: during the year before this occurred he served as Lord Lieutenant, the first resident Irish landlord to hold that office for a generation. Creevey’s letters to his step-daughter Elizabeth Ord tell us a great deal about life in Bessborough at the time. Of Lady Duncannon he wrote, ‘Her life here is devoted to looking after everybody, and in making them clean and comfortable in their persons, cloaths, cottages and everything…I wish you could have seen us walking up Piltown [the local village] last Saturday. Good old Irish usage…is to place the dirt and filth of the house at the entrance instead of behind it, and this was reformed at every house but one as we walked thro’ and Duncannon having called the old woman out told her he would not have the filth remain in that place…to which she was pleased to reply, “Well, my dear, if you do but walk by next Tuesday not a bit of the dirt shall you see remaining”.’
One suspects that the Duncannons were what might be described as benign despots, ruling over their tenants with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Creevey reported ‘My Lady’s mode of travelling is on a little pony, she sitting sideways in a chair saddle; one of the little girls was on another pony. My Lord and I sauntered on foot by her side. She got off and went into different cottages as we went. She gives prizes for the cleanest cottages…She put her Cottagers in mind of it, but there is a simplicity and interest and kindness in every communication of hers with the people here, on their part a natural unreserved confidential kind of return…’
No doubt worn out by her efforts to improve the lives of those around her, Lady Duncannon died in 1834 at the age of 46. Three of her seven sons became successively Earls of Bessborough, the sixth earl chairing the 1880 commission which investigated the problems of landlord and tenant in Ireland. His younger brother, the seventh earl, had previously been a Church of England clergyman.
Although Bessborough was occupied more than had previously been the case, it was never a permanent home for the Ponsonbys who continued to spend much of their time in England. In Twilight of the Ascendancy (1993) Mark Bence-Jones reports that the family was in residence for eight weeks each summer and another four at Christmas, but while there they entertained extensively and on one occasion had Queen Victoria’s son the Duke of Connaught and his wife to stay. Bence-Jones notes that the royal party was treated to a concert during which another of the houseguests sang Percy French’s ballad ‘The Mountains of Mourne’; she was supposed to do so in her bare feet but instead wore bedroom slippers. During this period Bessborough was also notable for its amateur dramatic performances, a popular pastime in the Edwardian era; the future ninth Earl of Bessborough was a keen actor and even brought over a professional director from London.
Nevertheless, like his forbears he was inclined to spend the greater part of his time on the other side of the Irish Sea. Prior to his father’s death in 1920 he had qualified as a barrister and served as an MP as well as becoming a successful businessman (and in the early 1930s he would be appointed Governor General of Canada). When the War of Independence broke out in this country he organised to have much of the contents of Bessborough removed from the house and brought to England. It was a wise decision since in February 1923 during the Civil War Bessborough was gutted by fire, along with another house in the same county, Desart Court. The damage to Bessborough was estimated at £30,000.
The year after Bessborough was burnt, the ninth earl bought Stansted Park in West Sussex and commissioned Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, an old friend from their days together at Cambridge, to carry out alterations to the house. Goodhart-Rendel was a gentleman architect who had inherited Hatchlands in Surrey, which he gave to the National Trust in 1945. Writing of him in October 1942, James Lees-Milne noted, ‘He told me the order of his chief interests in life is 1. the Roman Catholic Church, 2. the Brigade of Guards and 2. Architecture.’ It was thanks to Lees-Milne that Hatchlands came to be given to the NT and today the house is occupied by that wondrous Irish polymath Alec Cobbe in whose own family property Newbridge, County Dublin (now under the authority of the local council) hangs a portrait of his own ancestor Archbishop Charles Cobbe; this was painted by another gentleman-architect Francis Bindon, in turn responsible for the original design of Bessborough.
Completing this circle, after he had carried out the job at Stansted Park, Goodhart-Rendel was invited by the ninth earl to oversee the rebuilding of Bessborough, which he duly did from 1925 onwards. In an article on Stansted Park written for Country Life in February 1982, Clive Aslet quotes Goodhart-Rendel’s comment that Lord Bessborough, when it came to reconstructing his family house, ‘relied on my memory for the character of what new internal detail we were able to put in.’ In fact, it does not appear that the house benefitted from much internal detail since the rooms are noticeably plain, the only striking space being the double-height entrance hall with a large staircase that runs up to a screened corridor and has a first-floor gallery on the opposite wall (see the three photographs immediately above). One also has the impression that the central block alone was rebuilt and not the quadrants or wings.
The reason for this want of detail is most likely that the Ponsonbys never again lived at Bessborough and by the end of the 1930s they had entirely disposed of their County Kilkenny estate. Soon afterwards it was bought by a religious order, the Oblate Fathers who established a seminary there, adding large and aggressively workaday wings to either side of the house; understandably the architect of these extensions is unknown. In 1971 the estate was bought by the Irish Department of Agriculture and today Bessborough, now called Kildalton, serves as an agricultural college at the centre of a large working farm. Other than some fine planting in the immediate parkland, there is little to recall the house’s former existence, so let us end today as we did last week with a page from a visiting book. This one was kept by Lady Olwen Ponsonby who in 1901 married the third Lord Oranmore and Browne. The page below features signatures of guests at a house party at Bessborough in September 1909 and includes that of Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel immediately below a charming drawing he made of the front of the old house. Consider it serving as a memento mori not just for the old Bessborough but for many other such places in Ireland.
A window shutter in the library of Mount Stewart, County Down. This is located in what is now the west wing, the section designed by English architect George Dance the younger c.1804. Dance had visited the house in 1795 when he came to Ireland with his supposed lover Lady Elizabeth Pratt, sister of the new Lord Lieutenant Lord Camden. She was also sister-in-law of Mount Stewart’s then-owner Robert Stewart, first Baron Londonderry (later first Marquess of Londonderry) who early in the new century decided to enlarge his property and called upon Dance’s services. However, we know the architect did not come to Ireland again until 1815, instead sending drawings from London which were executed by John Ferguson, the estate carpenter. Note how the shutter’s prosaic function is concealed by being lined with leather bindings in imitation of those books filling the surrounding library shelves, a deft touch on the part of either Dance or Ferguson.
As painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1759, this handsome gentleman is Richard Boyle, second Earl of Shannon whose Dublin residence has featured here before (see From Townhouse to Tenement – and Back, September 16th). A direct descendant of Richard Boyle, the great Earl of Cork, Lord Shannon owed his own title to his father, Henry Boyle who served as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons for almost quarter of a century before accepting a peerage. His son was less politically astute but still managed to acquire a large number of rotten boroughs, allowing him to control election to parliament and thus to become known as the ‘Colossus of Castlemartyr’ (this being the name of his country seat in County Cork). Strangely Lord Shannon voted in favour of the 1800 Act of Union, even though it meant a loss of power for himself. On the other hand, he held onto the title of First Lord of the Irish Treasury, only relinquishing the position in 1804 in return for an annual pension of £3,000; he would die just three years later. His great-grandson sold this picture through Christie’s in June 1889 when it fetched 215 guineas. The work then passed through a number of different hands before coming up at Christie’s again last July when it went for £73,875. The photograph here was taken earlier this month at an art fair in Dallas, Texas: the Colossus of Castlemartyr has travelled…
Believed to date from September 1908 this photograph, which has appeared on several sites of late, shows the indoor servants at Bessborough, County Kilkenny. The house lay at the centre of an estate owned by the Ponsonby family. The first of their number to settle in Ireland was yet another of those English soldier adventurers who came to this country in such abundance during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Originally from Cumberland, Colonel Sir John Ponsonby was a member of Oliver Cromwell’s army who found himself rewarded for military service here with a parcel of land. He subsequently acquired several more, the largest being an estate by the river Suir in the south of the county hitherto owned by the Anglo-Norman D’Altons after whom it was called Kildalton. Here he settled and having built himself a residence, he re-named the place Bessie-Borough, later Bessborough after his second wife Elizabeth Folliott.
Subsequent generations increased their landholdings in both Kilkenny and the neighbouring counties of Carlow and Kildare and by the mid-18th century were in possession of almost 30,000 acres. Furthermore, following the example of Sir John who had served as a local MP in the Irish Parliament and especially in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars (in which the Ponsonbys had been decisively opposed to the Roman Catholic James II) they became more engaged in politics. William Ponsonby, third son of Sir John, was created Baron Bessborough in 1721 and Viscount Duncannon two years later; in turn his son Brabazon Ponsonby became first Earl of Bessborough in 1739.
The main block of Bessborough as we see it today dates from c.1744 and was commissioned by the first Earl to mark his new status. Although it is known that Sir Edward Lovett Pearce wrote a memorial about the building’s setting some time before his death in 1733, the design is attributed to Francis Bindon, a gentleman architect from County Clare, also notable as a portraitist (he painted no less than four likenesses of his friend Dean Swift). Bindon was related by marriage to Pearce and collaborated with Richard Castle on several projects, so his credentials are admirable. Nevertheless, one must be honest and admit that Bessborough was never one of his best works, the handling of the central structure being somewhat heavy. Writing in The Beauties of Ireland (1825) John Norris Brewer pertinently observed ‘The mansion of Bessborough is a spacious structure of square proportions, composed of hewn stone, but the efforts of the architect were directed to amplitude, and convenience of internal arrangement, rather than to beauty of exterior aspect. The house extends in front 100 feet, and in depth about 80. Viewed as an architectural object, its prevailing characteristic is that of massy respectability.’
Likewise in an essay on Bindon published in the Irish Georgian Society Bulletin for spring 1967, the Knight of Glin, evidently struggling to find something good to say about Bessborough (he described the garden front as being ‘an uninspiring six-bay breakfront composition with a pair of Venetian windows clumsily adrift on the first floor’) commented ‘The redeeming architectural feature of the house is to be found in the fine handling of the shallow quadrants leading to the flanking pavilions…The facing sides of the pavilions have niches and surmounting lunettes.’ The photographs above show the front of the house before and after it was altered at the end of the 19th century when the double-staircase leading to the raised entrance was removed and the ground was lowered to permit access via a porte-cochere; this work was undertaken by architect Sir Thomas Manly Deane.
Others found Bessborough more appealing, certainly members of the Ponsonby family even though during the second half of the 18th century they were hardly ever there. The first time the third Earl of Bessborough, who had been raised in England, saw his inheritance was in the aftermath of his father’s death in March 1793. Four months later he wrote to his wife ‘I came here yesterday and am indeed very much pleased with the place…The mountains are beautiful over fine wood, and the verdure is the finest that can be seen…The house is large and very comfortable, but as you may suppose very old-fashioned. There are about 10 or 11 good bedchambers. You would make it very cheerful with cutting down the windows & I believe I should agree.’
His proposals were never carried out, not least because another fifteen years were to pass before Henrietta, Lady Bessborough – the beautiful sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – came to see her husband’s Irish home, although she was equally delighted with it then, writing ‘I like this place extremely; with a very little expense it might be made magnificent, and it is beautiful…’ Likewise when staying in the house in September 1828 with the next generation of Ponsonbys, that indefatigable diarist and letter-writer Thomas Creevey advised his step-daughter Elizabeth Ord, ‘This is a charming place. I ought to say, as to its position and surrounding scenery – magnificent.’ Above are two photographs of the garden front of the rear. Note the two-storey extension to the left of the main block, which may date from the same time as the alterations to the front. However, as the second picture shows, at the very start of the last century, this development was improved by the addition of a balustrade stone terrace with double steps leading down to the garden.
We have relatively little information about the interiors of Bessborough, although they were, as both the largely absentee third countess and Thomas Creevey duly noted, certainly magnificent. The entrance hall – which became a sitting room after Deane’s alterations – featured a screen of four Ionic columns of solid Kilkenny marble each ten and a half feet tall. Sadleir and Dickinson’s 1915 Georgian Mansions in Ireland includes a couple of photographs of the saloon or drawing room, both shown above. One features a detail of the splendid rococo plasterwork with which the ceiling was decorated. The other shows the chimney piece, a design supposedly taken from William Kent although Sadleir and Dickinson propose the female herms in profile are portraits of the second earl’s two daughters, the Ladies Catherine and Charlotte Ponsonby who married the fifth Duke of St Albans and the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam respectively.
Even though the house was not much occupied during this period, it was well-maintained. When staying at Curraghmore, County Waterford in 1785 Lady Portarlington wrote, ‘Another day we went to Bessborough, which is a charming place, with very fine old timber and a very good house with some charming pictures, and it felt as warm and comfortable as if the family had left it the day before, and it has not been inhabited these forty years.’
There remains a great deal more to tell about Bessborough, its destruction, reconstruction and subsequent history, so rather in the manner of Country Life, today’s piece finishes with the words: To be concluded next week.
Meanwhile, below is a photograph of Bessborough with surrounding signatures of members of a house party there, taken from a visiting book kept by one of the Mulholland family (of Ballywalter, County Down) at the start of the last century.
The early 18th century entrance to Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath, an exceptionally tall and narrow door with segmental pediment above, added one suspects to indicate the owners were aware of classical architecture. Incorporating an older structure, this section of the castle is of two storeys and of a seven-bays, the three advanced centre bays rising to an attic which features the family coat of arms (dated 1617 and presumably therefore taken from its predecessor). Like the door, the windows are taller than usual, that on the floor immediately above the door having a round top. A late 18th century extension to the immediate left of the photograph below will be discussed at a later date.
Two of the ceilings in Townley Hall, County Louth, that of the drawing room (above) and the entrance hall (below). Dating from the late 1790s Townley has been discussed here before, not least its rotunda stairhall (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, June 10th) but amply repays further visits. The neo-classical masterpiece of Francis Johnston, the house owes as much to the couple responsible for its commissioning – Blayney Townley and Lady Florence Balfour – as to the architect. As these photographs show, the purity of decoration throughout is flawless.