The Fair Place

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The name Ballyfin derives from the Irish An Baile Fionn, meaning the fair place, and it’s an apt description for the house and estate in County Laois which now bear that name. Originally this part of the country was under the control of the O’More clan, but like so many others they were displaced of their lands during the settlement period in the 16th century. Laois was one of two counties created by Queen Mary in 1556 when it was called Queen’s County (and its main town, now Portlaoise, was Maryborough) and by the early decades of the following century Ballyfin had passed into the control of Sir Piers Crosby who is said to have built a castle here. In the disturbances of the 1640s, however, Crosby lost this territory when it came into the ownership of one Periam Pole, younger son of the Devonshire antiquarian Sir William Pole. In turn his son, likewise called Periam, would be confirmed as being in possession of the land, part of a larger estate of some 3,500 acres.
His son William Pole succeeded him in 1704 and some time later pulled down the old Crosby castle, replacing it with a more commodious house, these changes being described by a nephew as ‘grand and expensive and his designs were elegant, as his gardens show.’ But the expenditure meant that by 1727, the same relation would comment that William Pole ‘died worth no ready money between his improving Ballyfin and his wife’s going constantly every winter to Dublin.’ His elder son, another Periam – who undertook restoration on the house following a fire – died childless in 1748 and so the estate went to his sibling, another William Pole. The latter and his wife Lady Sarah Moore, a daughter of the fifth Earl of Drogheda, greatly developed Ballyfin’s parkland: in May 1759 Emily, Countess of Kildare could write to her husband, ‘Yesterday I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin…There is a piece of water there very like what I fancy ours will be, only broader; fine plantations and the greatest variety of trees and flowers almost that I ever saw anywhere.’ Over 250 years later Lady Kildare’s description remains apt.

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In addition to the grounds, William and Lady Sarah Pole also carried out work on the house built by his father, including ‘an elegant and commodious square of offices’ and, in 1778, an extension to the building that provided a new entrance hall and series of reception rooms. In 1784 William Ashford painted a number of views of Ballyfin which provide us with an idea of its appearance at the time; one of these pictures was engraved by Thomas Milton and published in 1787 in his Views of Seats in Ireland. The house is shown across the lake created by the Poles, a fourteen-bay elevation conforming to Milton’s description of it as ‘plain and modern-built’, the result being ‘an excellent family mansion’ with rooms ‘large and commodious, fitted up with taste’. Another engraving of the same building in 1794 shows its uneven façade and provides confirmation that the owners were planning still further developments. On the other hand, as was so often the case in Ireland, ambition outstripped income and it is apparent the Poles were heavily indebted by the time of their deaths in 1780 and 1781 respectively. Still, they were determined the improvements they had undertaken should not be dissipated, William Pole declaring in his will that ‘the person for the time being who shall enjoy my mansion house and demesne of Ballyfin shall engage and employ a skilful gardiner at the salary of one hundred pounds Sterling a year to attend and take care of the improvements…so as to keep and preserve the same in good and compleat order, repair and condition.’

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Like his elder brother William Pole had no children, and therefore Ballyfin passed to a godson and great-nephew, William Wellesley, whose father was the music-loving first Earl of Mornington and whose younger brother would become the great Duke of Wellington. Wellesley’s inheritance came with the proviso that he adopt the name Pole, and so he became William Wellesley-Pole. Although he spent time in this country as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1809 and 1812 and as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer during part of the same period, Wellesley-Pole, who would be made first Baron Maryborough in 1821 (and on the death of another brother in 1842 become third Earl of Mornington), spent the greater part of his career in England. In 1813 he offered his Irish estate for sale, a fortunate move since it would otherwise have been squandered by his eldest son.
This gentleman was one of the most notorious rakes of the early 19th century. Born William Wellesley-Pole, in 1812 shortly before marrying for the first time he added the surname of his heiress fiancée, thus becoming William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. The unfortunate bride, Catherine Tylney-Long, at the time generally called ‘The Wiltshire Heiress’ was believed to be the richest commoner in England, with estates providing an annual rental income of £40,000 per annum and financial investments worth £300,000. Her husband, on the other hand, had only debts and within a decade was forced to flee to mainland Europe to evade his creditors. His last years were spent in London, living on a weekly pension of ₤10 provided by his cousin Arthur Wellesley, second Duke of Wellington. On his death in July 1857, the Morning Chronicle obituarist summarised him as follows: ‘A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance.’

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Instead of being frittered away by William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the Ballyfin estate changed hands in 1813 when it was bought by Sir Charles Henry Coote, premier Baronet of Ireland. The first of his family to come to Ireland had been an earlier Charles Coote, like Periam Pole originally from Devonshire. As a young soldier he came to this country to make his fortune and was eventually rewarded with large grants of land as well as a lifetime possession of several valuable state offices. He died in 1642 during the Confederate Wars and was succeeded by his son Charles who supported Oliver Cromwell but, after the latter’s death, championed the restoration of Charles II and was thus granted the title of Earl of Mountrath. This title passed down through successive generations until the death in 1802 of the childless seventh earl who left his Mountrath estate of some 50,000 acres to a kinsman, Charles Henry Coote, then a ten-year old schoolboy. The property was held in trust until he came of age, conveniently just as Ballyfin was offered for sale and a year before his marriage to Caroline Whaley (a niece of the famous Irish gambler Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley).
Although the Cootes had been considerable landowners in Queen’s County since the early 17th century, they do not appear to have had a significant residence there. The ruins survive of two houses associated with the family, Castle Cuffe, built by the first Sir Charles Coote and named after his wife Dorothea Cuffe, and Rush Hall, but neither was in use by the time the ninth baronet came into his inheritance. Therefore it made sense to acquire an existing estate, especially one such as Ballyfin which had benefitted from the attention of successive earlier owners. He and his new wife settled here and when the place was visited by Atkinson in 1815, he reported in The Irish Tourist, ‘The dwelling-house of Ballyfin is a large building in the form of a half-square, it has an aspect of neatness and extent, but in its exterior appearance nothing very ornamental or magnificent. The rooms, however, which I saw, were spacious and furnished in a stile of elegance suitable to the place. Under this head may be classed, as an article of the first consideration, a rich and valuable collection of paintings, the work of eminent artists.’

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It was perhaps because they required a better setting for their collection of ‘rich and valuable’ paintings that in the early 1820s the Cootes decided to embark on a rebuilding programme at Ballyfin. It would appear that the initial intention was to remodel and extend the existing structure, using the services of a relatively unknown architect called Dominick Madden (he would go on to design several Roman Catholic cathedrals in the west of Ireland). However, here as elsewhere Madden ran into trouble with his clients – in 1810 he had been dismissed from a position with the Board of Works for ‘irregular conduct’ including the theft of furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge – and was replaced by the ubiquitous Morrisons, Richard and his son William Vitruvius. They proposed an entirely new scheme that even involved the demolition of Madden’s recently completed library and vestibule, and somehow succeeded in persuading Sir Charles Coote to go along with their plans.
As Kevin V Mulligan wrote in a 2005 article on the house, ‘The detail and quality of finishes in the executed building, indicate that the Morrisons’ skills in spatial planning and decorative design were matched only by their powers of persuasion. The wealth of materials available to the Morrisons is seen in the ability to execute all the elevations in smooth sandstone ashlar. The conservatory, a feature represented in the Morrisons’ earliest proposals, seems to have been the only element sacrificed until Richard Turner’s fragile curvilinear glass cell was added sometime after 1855. Internally, a stunning collection of scagliola columns included the most expensive that could be obtained from the Lambeth works of William Croggon who almost certainly provided them here, represented by the imitation verde antico Corinthian columns that contribute to the imperial grandeur of the saloon. Elsewhere, endless mahogany for doors and bookcases and an assorted range of exotic woods used to remarkable effect in the parquetry floors constituted more expensive materials; added to this were the contents of seven packing cases sent from Italy in 1821 through the agency of the artist Gaspare Gabrielli which may have included the matching chimneypieces with Bacchanalian friezes that now serve the saloon and dining room or indeed the Roman mosaic set into the stone floor of the entrance hall. But all of this barely compares with the wealth of artistry available in the craftsmen who fashioned these materials, especially those who modelled and cast the extraordinary stuccowork, an eclectic decorative display that remains the principal glory of Ballyfin.’

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Ballyfin remained in the ownership of the Cootes for just over 100 years before steeply declining income, the loss of the estate to the Land Commission and changing political circumstances obliged the family to sell. In 1928 the house and demesne were acquired by the Patrician Brothers for £10,000, only a fraction of what it had cost to build the Morrison-designed property a century before. The religious order operated a boarding school on the premises until they in turn announced an intention to sell in September 2001. After visiting Ballyfin the following January, I wrote that by this date some of the rooms had become ‘barely habitable, because in recent years the house has suffered from water seeping through the roof and into the building. A corner of the ground-floor drawing-room, for example, shows evidence of serious damage from this problem.’ While problems with the roof had been stabilised, ‘more costly work is still required on the parapets and corbels. Then money will need to be spent elsewhere on the building, taking care of those sections which have been ruined by damp as well as rescuing such features as the saloon’s marquetry floor, areas of which have become dislodged, and the unique glass and iron conservatory dating from the 1850s and believed to have been designed by Richard Turner…And the grounds are also suffering from a shortage of funds for their upkeep: trees need to be thinned or felled, while other sections of the woodlands should be replanted; the grottoes and follies, including a 19th-century “medieval” observation tower, are suffering; and one of the neo-classical gate lodges is almost derelict. Remarkable and deserving of support as Ballyfin may be, the question must be asked: who can or will come to its salvation?’
Amazingly, a new owner did come forward to save Ballyfin and to undertake the slow and costly programme of restoration that the house required. Work began in 2002 and continued until 2010, meticulous, methodical and almost without equal in this country. Ballyfin then reopened as an hotel, but not – as is too often the case – with its parkland despoiled and its interiors butchered. On the contrary, the sensitivity of the house’s present owners and the skills of the team they assembled to resuscitate the property means that this is one of the finest restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the past century. As a result Ballyfin today once more lives up to its name of being the fair place.

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For this week’s account I am much indebted to Kevin V Mulligan’s excellent 2011 publication, Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne.
Ballyfin is now a superlatively luxurious hotel, for more information see: http://www.ballyfin.com

Ashford as It Was

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Next Wednesday, July 23rd, a sale takes place in Cong, County Mayo of items from Ashford Castle. Most of the lots appear to be surplus to the requirements of the place’s new owners but a few are survivors of the period when Ashford was owned by the Guinness family. Originally a 13th century de Burgo castle, in the 1670s Ashford passed into the ownership of the Browne family, remaining such until sold through the Encumbered Estates Court to Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness in 1852. He then left it to his eldest son Arthur Edward Guinness, created Lord Ardilaun in 1880. Between them père et fils greatly enlarged and improved both the old house and surrounding estate. It was never a full-time residence but primarily used during the shooting season: in January 1905 the Prince of Wales (later George V) spent a week there. Lord Ardilaun having no children, on his death in 1915 the estate reverted to the family trust which passed it on to the Hon. Ernest Guinness. He frequently joked that far too many people were employed at Ashford, ‘Every one of whom might fall over if you removed his (sweeping) brush.’ However, relations with staff gradually deteriorated to the point that the summer of 1938 they went on strike, looking for a wage increase of two shillings a week. Ernest Guinness was so exasperated by their behaviour that he left Ashford in his private plane and never returned. The following autumn the trust placed Ashford on the market and in spring 1939, shortly before the estate went to public auction, 22,000 acres were bought by the Irish State for £20,000. The castle and immediate 170 acres were leased by hotelier Noel Huggard; ever since Ashford Castle has operated as an hotel under a succession of managements, the latest taking over last year. Above is a page taken from a Guinness family photograph album showing a shoot on the estate eighty years ago.

Exactly as Intended

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From a letter written to Sir John Keane on July 30th 1913 comes this design for a new pedimented porch leading off the drawing room at Cappoquin House, County Waterford. The architect responsible, Page L Dickinson, came up with several proposals for this project which was intended to replace a 19th century wooden structure the style of which was unsympathetic to the main building. As he explains to his client, ‘The introduction of two columns inside the central piers reduces this opening to the same size as the others, & also makes more of a feature of the centre.’ Indeed it does, and so the design was accepted and executed just before the outbreak of the first World War, and the burning of Cappoquin ten years later. Thankfully the house was subsequently restored, and Dickinson’s addition remains intact.

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To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale

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‘The further I advanced, the more gloomy did the scene become. Not a human being crossed my path – no herds of cattle – no flocks of sheep were to be found in the rank pastures, and no sound broke in on the almost unnatural stillness save the hoarse croakings of an ill-boding raven. The air was oppressive. Heavy clouds, surcharged with rain, hovered over my head and among the distant mountains was again heard the voice of the mighty thunder. I hurried forward. The path was scarcely perceptible, for the grass was long and rank, and wet with the preceding rains. At length, within the deep recesses of a grove of huge trees, I could trace the roofless gables of an ancient building. I paused, for it was a singular scene of utter desolation: it was manifest that no part of this ancient establishment had escaped destruction, save portions of the church. Looking upon the place in all its solitary wildness, it was difficult to conceive that it had ever been the abode of living men; and that the busy scenes of life, for such even a monastery presents, had ever been enacted here. The aspect of this spot was as if it were not only totally deserted, but unknown. With a feeling of awe I approached nearer the ruins. The dark clouds and the thick foliage cast an unwonted gloom over the place. Around the roofless building were many graves unfenced from the inroads of cattle or other animals. Many a cross of wood or stone was there – many a sculptured head-stone, overgrown with moss, rose from amid the green mounds, beneath which slept the mouldering remnants of many generations.
Cautiously picking my way, I at length gained the other side of the ruin, and stood in front of the ancient porch. It had been once handsome, and bore many marks of skilful workmanship; but the hand of destruction as well as of time had been busy here. The entrance was half choked with rubbish and masses of disjointed stonework. The noisome nettle and the henbane luxuriated, and out of the deep fissures in the walls grew masses of ivy and the spreading branches of an elder tree. Turning from the building, the view was still wild and solitary, but beautiful and unexpected. The waters of Lough Mask washed a pebbly strand not far from the spot where I stood. Two wooded islands cast their deep shadows on the lake ; and far to the left, bounding the broad expanse, rose the mountains of Kilbride and the towering cliffs of Glenbeg. As I gazed, heavy drops of rain began to fall, the clouds seemed heavy with mischief, and rolled onwards in long dark masses. In vain I looked around for some cottage or shed, into which I might hasten for shelter; the rain began to fall heavily, and a flash of lightning, succeeded rapidly by a clap of thunder, which reverberated awfully among the rocks and woods, drove me at once through the half choked porch into the interior of the ruins, perchance some friendly corner might there present itself. I found myself in the nave of the ancient conventual church. No portion of the roof was left: a large ash tree grew in the centre, luxuriating in the rich accumulations around and over the side walls thick masses of ivy clustered, affording me a precarious shelter…
My blood ran cold as my eye pierced the gloom and rested upon objects the most abhorrent and disgusting. Large stones thrown from the walls were scattered around and among them were the sad relics of bodies once instinct with life. I counted no less than sixty skulls! To remain was impossible. Though vivid flashes of lightning threw a momentary glare around, and loud and continued bursts of thunder proclaimed the tempest at its height, I hastily left the spot, and as I gained the open glades of the park, felt much relieved that this my first and probably last visit to the old abbey of Ross was achieved.’
From The Saxon in Ireland, or the Rambles of an Englishman in Search of a Settlement in the West of Ireland, by the Rev. John Hervey Ashworth, 1851.

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‘The ruins of the Franciscan convent at Ross, near Headford, in the county Galway, are popularly styled the Abbey of Ross. In the early records this convent receives the name Ross-Errily or Ross-Traily, which is a corruption of the Irish name Ross-ne-threallagh. It was delightfully situated on the south bank of the Black river, in the parish of Kilursa; and its ruins still attest its former magnificence. The Four Masters and Luke Wadding register its foundation in the year 1351; and the latter adds that it was a most retired and lonely spot, surrounded on all sides with water, and approachable only by a narrow path which was formed of large blocks of stone.
Before the close of the fifteenth century it attained special eminence among the many Franciscan institutions of the kingdom; and its property comprised the townlands of Ross, Cordara, and Ross-duff, amounting to about thirteen hundred statute acres. It was from the hallowed precincts of this monastery that a colony went forth to found the convent of Donegal, so famous in our annals. A provincial chapter of the Franciscan order had assembled in Ross-Errily to deliberate on matters of private interest, when Nuala O’Connor, daughter of O’Connor Faily, and wife of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, hereditary chieftain of Tirconnell, came, accompanied by a goodly array of gallow-glasses, to present an humble memorial. This petition of the Lady Nuala set forth the anxious desire of the faithful of Tirconnell to have amongst them some religious of the order of St. Francis to be their guides in their heavenward journey by precept and example. The favour was soon granted, and before the close of 1474 the foundations were laid of the far-famed monastery whose ruins are still met with at the head of the lovely bay of Donegal.
In 1538 the convent of Ross-Errily shared in the storm of persecution with which the reckless monarch Henry the Eighth assailed the church of our fathers. Indeed the Franciscans were in a special manner exposed to the rage of the English monarch. They had energetically opposed his wished-for divorce, and now they should pay the penalty of their zeal. Two hundred Franciscans were thrown into prison; thirty-two of them were bound with chains, and exposed to every insult; others were banished, and some, too, were put to death.
New trials awaited the convent of Ross-Errily in the reign of Elizabeth. In an inquiry which was made in the commencement of her reign, it was found that “the site of the monastery of Ross-Errilly or Ross-Railly was one acre of land; that it contained a church, a cloister, a hall, dormitories, chambers, and cellars; a cemetery, three small gardens, and a mill, which for want of water, could work only in winter”. By royal patent the tithes attached to the church were granted to the portreve and burgesses of Athenry; whilst the monastery, with its property, was allotted to Richard Burgh, Earl of Clanrickarde. This nobleman, however, whose family had long been the patrons of the Franciscan convent, privately restored it to its owners. The crown, finding the friars in 1584 again in possession of the monastery, made a grant of it to an English courtier, who plundered it of its library, monuments, and books, and expelled the religious. He was soon, however, anxious to part with his ill-acquired property, and two years later we find it once more purchased by Clanrickarde and restored to the children of St. Francis. The close of the century saw Ross-Errily transformed into an English garrison which was destined to curb the Western chieftains, and prevent them from joining the ranks of O’Neill and O’Donnell in the north.’
From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. V, No. I, October 1868

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‘In 1617, two Irish Franciscans, Fathers Purcell and Mooney, were resident at Louvain, where they and their Order had, after their expulsion from Ireland, been protected by Albert and Isabella, then joint sovereigns of the Netherlands. Fr. Mooney, at that time Provincial, and far advanced in years, had been in early life a soldier, and served in the Desmond wars. Purcell was a man of great learning; and, from materials supplied him by his superior, wrote, partly as a dialogue, a Latin history of his Order, so far as it related to their Irish establishments. This interesting MS., the original of which is in the Burgundian Library at Brussels, the Rev. C. P. Meehan, of Dublin, has translated and published. Fr. Mooney’s recollections of this monastery are thus afforded by his ancient scribe and modern commentator:
“Never was a more solitary spot chosen for the habitation of a religious community than that one on which Rosserilly stands; for it is surrounded by marshes and bogs, and the stillness that reigns there is seldom broken, save by the tolling of the church bell, or the whirr of the countless flocks of plover and other wild birds that frequent the fens which abound in that desolate region. Another remarkable feature of the locality is, that the monastery can only be approached by a causeway, paved with large stones, over an extent of fully two hundred paces, and terminating at the enclosure, which was built in 1572 by Father Ferrall Mac Egan, a native of Connacht, and then Provincial of the Irish Franciscans.He was, in sooth, a distinguished man in his day, far-famed for eloquence and learning, and singularly fond of Rosserilly, which he used to compare to the Thebaid, whither the early Christians fled for prayer and contemplation. He died in our house of Kilconnell, where he made his religious profession, and there he awaits the resurrection – peace to his memory! As to the church of Rosserilly, it is, indeed, a beautiful edifice; and the same may be said of the monastery, which, although often garrisoned by the English troops during the late war, is still in excellent preservation. Cloister, refectory, dormitory, chapter house, library, and lofty bell tower, have all survived the disasters of that calamitous period; but, in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth, the friars were forcibly expelled from their beloved retreat.”
The friars, however, soon returned, and remained in quiet possession for long after, till Sir Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy, directed O Donnell, or Daniel, Archbishop of Tuam, to turn them out; but that good and learned Protestant sent them word privately of his intention, and they saved themselves and their effects by flight. One good turn deserved another; and this kindness was repaid in 1641, when, after the massacre at Shrule, Father Brian Kilkelly, then Guardian of Rosserilly, hearing of the atrocities which were enacting within a few miles of him, hastened to the spot, succoured the wounded, and brought the Bishop of Killala’s wife and children to his monastery, and treated them with the greatest kindness.’
From Lough Corrib: Its Shores and Islands by Sir William Wilde, 1867.

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‘Although there is nothing in the town [of Headford, County Galway] of interest, yet the tourist should by all means pay a visit to Ross Abbey, about 1½m. distant, one of the most extensive and beautiful buildings in Ireland, built at the close of the 15th cent. by Lord Granard for Observantine Franciscans and granted to the Earl of Clanrickarde at the suppression of religious houses. Including the religious and domestic buildings, it covers a very large space of ground on the banks of the Black river, and overlooking a considerable tract of bog. It is the cemetery of many good Connaught families and probably contains more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.
The ch. has a nave, choir and S. transept, with a slender and graceful tower arising from the intersection. Attached to the nave are N. and S. aisles, and a chapel running parallel with the S. transept. The latter, together with the S. aisle, are separated from the nave by round-headed arches with octangular piers. Two round arches also divide the transept from the aisles, and two blocked ones from the chapel on the E. In the W. chapel of the S. aisle is a small monument of the O’Donnells, 1646. The nave is shut off from the choir by a broad-headed segmental arch. The latter part of the ch. is lighted on S. by 4 double-light trefoil windows; and on the S. side of the altar is a double-arched niche used as an ambry. The E. window is dec. with very delicate tracery, and is worth notice as is also the moulding of the W. door, close to which is the stoup for holy water. To the N. of the nave are the cloisters, which are in good preservation. The area is small and surrounded by 10 beautiful pointed arches about 3 ft. high, the entrance of the passage within being under round-headed arches…
From the N. of the choir runs a long chapel lighted by E. Eng. windows, those of the N. side having ogee heads. A projecting building also on the N. of the choir was probably the Abbot’s residence, and beyond the N. transept is the kitchen with ample fireplace and spout for carrying the water away, also a stone reservoir and pipe connecting it with the river, probably used as a fish vivarium. On the E. side of the kitchen is the guesten-hall, in which there is an aperture communicating with the kitchen for the entrance of the viands. Probably there is no ruin in the kingdom showing the domestic arrangements to greater advantage than Ross, which on this account deserves to be attentively studied.’
From A Handbook for Travellers in Ireland, John Murray, 1866.

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‘Besides the common quantity of these remains tossing all about, there was an immense heap lying outside the church, and as these bones seemed to have accumulated for ages, and as the place from the vicinity of the river was very damp, this immense “ossarium” if I may so name it, was covered with all sorts of verdure, mosses, lichens, sedums, saxifrages, and wild strawberries just showing their fruit between jaw-bones. It was curious to see skulls like wrens’ nests, and thigh bones as green as cabbage-stalks; the dry bones had, as it were, assumed a new mode of existence, and again served as the basis of a new life. It really was a scene on which a person might ponder and phrenologise; and I confess no collection of human bones I ever saw interested me more – no not even that far-famed congeries which at Cologne assumes to be the remains of St. Ursula’s eleven thousand virgins.
The cloisters of Ross are quite perfect – as perfect as those of Muckruss or Quin; but they have not the picturesque accompaniment, like those at Killarney, of a magnificent yew-tree in the centre. The dormitories, the chapter-house, the cellars and kitchens, are all (as far as walls go) perfect. There the friars, living in a damp and low situation, had need of fires, and they took care to have them. I never saw such huge fire-places. The kitchen hearth would not disgrace the largest at Oxford or Cambridge. In one of the corners of a huge apartment, which seemed to be a scullery, there is a circular excavation, cased with cut stone, too large for a well, in all likelihood a place for holding live fish, which taken out of the adjoining river, no doubt were kept here for ready use.
Altogether this abbey seems to have formed a little town in itself, having no entrance but the one, and its walls high and thick; it was a sort of stronghold and, no doubt, in the lawless times before the reformation, afforded an asylum for the weak and persecuted, as well as a sanctuary for the criminal. If any one wishes to see an Irish monastery in perfection, with all its “menage“, they will before passing on to Cong, and before visiting the western highlands of Ireland, take a view of Ross Reilly which was founded by Lord Granard in the fifteenth century, and was placed under the rule of the Franciscans. It, like many others, was repaired by the Roman Catholic clergy in 1604.
On leaving this abbey, I could not resist the desire I had to bring away one of these moss-bewigged skulls in order to show it to some phrenological friends in Dublin, and as we had no means of secreting it, and justly apprehended that if we returned the way we came through the field where the people were working we might be ill treated (as perhaps we deserved) as robbers of the dead, we had to keep along the margin of the river, and not only disentangle ourselves from its windings, but leap over, as best we could, the numerous and wide drains that lay in our way, with no small fear of being caught and well beaten. We, however, effected our retreat to our jaunting car, and secreted our skull, which may be seen in all its verdant beauty in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.’
From A Tour in Connaught, by the Rev. Caesar Otway, 1839.

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Ross Errilly Friary is today under the care of the Office of Public Works; the skulls once littering its precincts (and sometimes taken away as souvenirs) are no longer to be seen…

How It All Came Crashing Down

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‘It is extraordinary how women’s figures change according to the fashion of the times. Then, hers seemed to be absolutely perfect. She had that wonderful long neck, and a skin so delicate and transparent that, like Mary Queen of Scots, when she swallowed, you could almost see the passage of the wine through her throat. I have never seen such a skin or such flesh…Her face was lovely, with soft brown eyes, a delicately formed, slightly retroussé nose, and brilliant, pouting lips. It was before the days of make-up and her wonderful colour was her own. Alas! That colour told its own tragic story. It was the beauty of the consumptive.’
Thus Hermione, fifth Duchess of Leinster as described by her friend Daisy Fingall (whose memoirs, Seventy Years Young cannot be sufficiently recommended to anyone who has yet to discover them). Judged one of the great beauties of the late Victorian era, at the age of 19 she had married Gerald FitzGerald, then Marquess of Kildare. Although the couple had two sons, Maurice and Desmond – Hermione can be seen with them both above – the marriage was not happy: while living in Kilkea Castle, County Kildare she once wrote the couplet, ‘Kilkea Castle and Lord Kildare/Are more than any woman can bear.’
She then embarked on an affair with Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (later 11th Earl of Wemyss) the brother of another friend Evelyn, Viscountess de Vesci, and with him had a third son Edward. It was the misfortune of the FitzGeralds that following the early deaths of both the fifth Duke and Duchess of Leinster their eldest child should have suffered psychiatric problems and been institutionalised before he too died young, while the second son was killed in the First World War.
The next heir was Hermione’s third child, Lord Edward FitzGerald, a notorious spendthrift and wastrel who was barely 21 before being declared bankrupt for the first of several occasions. As is well-known, in 1917 he sold his birthright for £67,000 worth of debts and an annuity of £1,000: five years later he became the seventh Duke of Leinster. The outcome was, and has been ever since, catastrophic for the FitzGeralds and for their old estate at Carton, County Kildare. A photograph of how the saloon looked in the 1890s before any of this misfortune occurred can be seen below. The story is now told in Terence Dooley’s new book, The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster, 1872-1948 (Four Courts Press) which makes for a grim but gripping read. In recent months there has been extensive media coverage of several once-wealthy Irish plutocrats brought crashing down: Terence Dooley’s book demonstrates this is no new phenomenon.

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A Grand Soft Day

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Recently photographed on a typical Irish summer morning (that is to say in sleeting rain: the Irish Aesthete is nothing if not intrepid) the walled garden at Glenarm Castle, County Antrim. Dating from the 18th century, it originally provided the main house with fruit and vegetables but in recent years has been converted into a series of pleasure grounds open to the public, the upper sections designed by Catherine FitzGerald, eldest daughter of the late Knight of Glin. Above is an obelisk of oak created by local craftsman Corin Giles: what distinguishes this piece is the use of wood for a rusticated base. Meanwhile below a pair of rills flanked by beech hedges run down to a cascade before concluding in a pool; far below can be seen an opening cut into the yew circle dating from the 1820s. How simple devices can achieve powerful effects…

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Waiting to be Woken

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Anyone who has read Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes will remember the author’s evocation of Les Sablonnières, ancient home of the de Galais family which has seen better days. It is here that the novel’s eponymous hero, having disappeared from school, comes across a magical costume party and falls in love as much with the place as with the girl he meets on that occasion. Thereafter both he and the narrator are driven by a desire to recapture a lost moment and as a result are repeatedly driven to return to Les Sablonnières.
Milltown Park, County Offaly is like an Irish version of Alain-Fournier’s fictional house. Hidden from sight on all nearby roads, unknown even by many of the local residents and only discovered at the end of a long, verdant drive, it seems to seep memories and to be haunted by the past. Replete with echoes and reverberations, it is a sleeping beauty of a building, deep in dreams of what once took place within its walls and waiting for someone to come along and stir it into life again.

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In a blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720 but the accompanying initials W.S. suggest this was added long after the house was finished, since at the time of its original construction the estate was owned by the Spunner family: they only became White-Spunners in the 19th century after the son of Benjamin White and Elizabeth Spunner changed his name from Thomas Spunner White to Thomas Spunner White-Spunner on inheriting Milltown. Behind and to the north of the house is a large model farm courtyard built in 1840 so perhaps the initials and date on the front of the property were added at the same time.
In fact, Milltown is only slightly later in origin. The lands on which it stands appear to have been in the ownership of the Spunners since the 1500s and the ruins of an earlier residence remain. By the 18th century, with circumstances in the country more settled than had previously been the case and the economy accordingly more buoyant, the Spunners must have decided to embark on erecting a more fashionable home for themselves.

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‘From time to time, the wind, laden with a mist that is almost rain, dampens our faces and brings us the faint sound of a piano which someone is playing in the closed house. At first is it like a trembling voice, far, far away, scarcely daring to express its happiness. It’s like the laughter of a little girl in her room who has gone to fetch all her toys and is displaying them to a friend. I am reminded, too, of the still timorous joy of a woman who has left to put on a lovely dress and returns to show it off without being sure of the effect it will have...This unknown tune is also a prayer, an entreaty to happiness not to be too cruel, like a greeting and a genuflection to happiness...’
From Le Grand Meaulnes

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In Maurice Craig’s wonderful (and wonderfully named) 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, although Milltown Park does not feature many of its architectural elements are discussed. So, for example, when considering the elevation of these buildings, he writes of the widespread use of a tripartite opening, commenting ‘I prefer this term rather than “Venetian window” because it covers a number of pseudo-Palladian features which, though inter-related, can be distinguished from one another. It should be borne in mind that a round-headed door flanked by side-lights [as found at Milltown Park] is first cousin to a “Venetian” window. Such a door occurs in Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, where the sidelights are separated from the door by piers of walling...’
From grand Seaton Delaval in Northumberland to modest Milltown Park in Offaly in twenty-odd years is quite a journey, but the latter house shows how taste could travel and fashions be adopted by other architects such as Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (whose father, after all, was a first cousin of Vanbrugh). Note how the same tripartite design is used on both the ground floor (for the smart Gibbsian doorway) and that above but slightly bungled because, as indicated by the photograph below of the landing, the ceiling was too low to accommodate the full height of the central window. Thus its upper section is blind. Another indication of Milltown Park’s ‘country cousin’ status are the blunt gable-ends with oversized chimney stacks. The house shares characteristics with two others in neighbouring County Laois, Summergrove and Roundwood: all have five-bay limestone facades with a central breakfront featuring tripartite windows on the ground and first floor and a pediment above. They represent, as Maurice Craig notes, ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion: a shade unsophisticated but with great charm.’

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The interior of Milltown Park displays the same mixture of sophistication and naïveté, a broad awareness of current trends without a full understanding of how best to implement them. The design of some rooms clearly received more attention than did others. The entrance hall with its lovely flagged floor concludes in a screen that might have been inspired by Brunelleschi. And the front section has a ceiling decorated with pretty rococo plasterwork, generic in style but no less charming for that.
This is the only room with such ornamentation, although the drawing room has a good marble chimney piece and the morning room a fine neo-classical cornice frieze. But it is the handsome sturdiness of Milltown Park that most appeals, embodied by the broad first floor landing with its wide oak boards and views over the surrounding parkland. This was never an especially grand house, inspired more by aspiration than pretension, and embellished only as and when funds permitted. Hence its endurance for almost three centuries. Now, for the first time since being constructed, it is to be sold: a potentially hazardous moment in its history. Milltown waits to be awoken from its current slumber but whoever undertakes this task should have the sensitivity not to despoil the house’s special character. The place is vulnerable and requires - and deserves - special care. Wanted: one country gentleman prepared to share a property with a host of memories and happy to permit the ghosts of its past wander free.

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