Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been?*

Dowth 25

Dowth 27

Located midway between Slane and Drogheda, and immediately north of the river Boyne Dowth is today known as the site of one of a number of important Neolithic passage tombs in County Meath, others in its immediate vicinity including Newgrange and Knowth. But Dowth deserves to be renowned also for an important mid-18th century house which is due to be auctioned at the end of January.
Dowth Hall dates from c.1760 and was built for John, Viscount Netterville (1744-1826). His family, of Anglo-Norman origin, had been settled in the area since at least the 12th century: in 1217 Luke Netterville was selected to be Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. That religious streak remained with them and come the 16th century Reformation the Nettervilles remained determinedly Roman Catholic. For this adherence some of them suffered greatly; when Drogheda fell to Oliver Cromwell in September 1649 the Jesuit priest Robert Netterville was captured and tortured, subsequently dying of the injuries sustained. Nevertheless, the Nettervilles survived, and even acquired a viscouncy. They also held onto their estates, one of a number of families – the Plunketts of Killeen Castle and the Prestons of Gormanston spring to mind – who retained both their religious faith and their lands, thereby disproving the idea that Catholics automatically suffered displacement during the Penal era.

Dowth 11

Dowth 19

The sixth Viscount was only aged six on the death of his father, the latter dismissed by Mrs Delaney as ‘A fop and a fool, but a lord with a tolerable estate, who always wears fine clothes’ and otherwise only notable for having been indicted the year before his son’s birth for the murder of a valet (he was afterwards honourably acquitted by the House of Lords).
The young Lord Netterville was raised by his widowed mother and spent much time in Dublin where the family owned a fine house at 29 Upper Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. The old castle in Dowth seems to have fallen into ruin and so a few years after coming of age Viscount Netterville undertook to construct a new house on his Meath estate.
As is so often the case, information about the architect responsible for Dowth Hall is scanty. The common supposition is that the building was designed by George Darley (1730-1817), who had been employed for this purpose by Lord Netterville in Dublin where he was also the architect of a number of other houses. And indeed from the exterior Dowth Hall, rusticated limestone ground floor and tall ashlar first floor with windows alternately topped by triangular and segmental pediments, looks like an Italianate town palazzo transported into the Irish countryside; not least thanks to its plain sides, the house seems more attuned to the streets of Milan than the rich pasturelands of Meath.

Dowth 3

Dowth 6

The real delight of Dowth lies in its extravagantly decorated interiors, where a master stuccadore has been allowed free hand. The drawing room (originally dining room) is especially fanciful with rococo scrolls and tendrils covering wall panels and the ceiling’s central light fitting suspended from the claws of an eagle around which flutter other birds. None of the other ground floor rooms quite match this boldness but they all contain superlative plaster ornamentation, with looped garlands being a notable feature of the library. Again, the person responsible for this work is unknown, but on the basis of comparative similarities with contemporary stuccowork at 86 St Stephen’s Green in Dublin (on which George Darley is supposed to have worked) Dowth Hall’s decoration is usually attributed to Robert West (died 1790).
Although not as extensive, there is even a certain amount of plasterwork decoration in the main bedrooms on the first floor, which is most unusual. And the house still retains its original chimneypieces (that in the entrance hall even has its Georgian basket grate), along with fine panelled doors and other elements from the property’s original construction. This makes it of enormous importance, since many other similar buildings underwent refurbishment and modernisation in the 19th century during which they lost older features.

Dowth 8

Dowth 22

There are reasons why Dowth Hall has survived almost unaltered since first built 250 years ago. The sixth Viscount Netterville, somewhat eccentric, fell into dispute with the local priest and was banned from the chapel on his own land; in retaliation, he built a ‘tea house’ on top of the Neolithic tomb from which he claimed to follow religious services through a telescope. But then he seems to have given up living at Dowth and moved back to Dublin. He never married and on dying at the age of 82 left a will with no less than nine codicils. One of these insisted that the Dowth estate go to whoever inherited the title, but it took eight years and a lot of litigation for the rightful heir, a distant cousin, to establish his claim. He did so at considerable cost and so, despite marrying an heiress, was obliged to offer Dowth for sale; the last Lord Netterville, another remote cousin, died also without heirs in 1882 and the title became extinct. Meanwhile Dowth was finally bought from the Chancery Court in 1850 by Richard Gradwell, younger son of a wealthy Catholic family from Lancashire. His heirs continued to live in the house for a century, but then sold up in the early 1950s when the place changed hands again. It did so one more time around twenty years later when acquired by two local bachelor farmers who moved into Dowth Hall. Following their respective deaths (the second at the start of last year), a local newspaper reported that the siblings had gone ‘to Drogheda every Saturday night, would attend the Fatima novena at 7.30pm then would walk over West Street to see what was going on, although they never took a drink or went to pubs.’
Now Dowth Hall is for sale, and there must be concern that it finds a sympathetic new owner because the house is in need of serious attention. It comes with some 420 acres of agricultural land, which means a sale is assured but that could be to the building’s disadvantage: it might fall into further desuetude if the farm alone was of interest to a purchaser. Too many instances of this have occurred in the past and it must not be allowed to happen here. One feels there ought to be some kind of vetting process to ensure prospective buyers demonstrate sufficient appreciation of the house. Only somebody with the same vision and flair as the sixth Lord Netterville should be permitted to acquire Dowth Hall.
This last image is taken from Georgian Mansions in Ireland by Thomas Sadleir and Page Dickinson published in 1915.

Dowth 40

*From a poem by John Betjeman, written after he had visited Ireland as an Oxford undergraduate and met the last surviving members of the family responsible for building Dowth Hall.

41 comments on “Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been?*

  1. Lawrie Weed says:

    Oh How I wish we could rescue this gem – please keep us appraised of the outcome of the Auction. Lawrie

  2. […] in a village that might easily be missed. Also, two houses at different stages of decline: Dowth Hall, due to be sold in January, future uncertain; and a victim of the Celtic tiger, Castle […]

  3. ravishing plasterwork – it must be saved!

  4. Ann says:

    Thank you for this article. I am a Netterville descendent so it was exciting to know that the family made it in to a Betjemen poem, which I did not know. I would love to think that the property was within my price range so that I could rescue it – but I suspect it isn’t.

    • You’re most welcome: I found the poem in a personal reminiscence written by someone who knew Betjeman at Oxford. I had hoped that Dowth might be sold prior to auction but that now seems unlikely since the event is scheduled for Thursday: let’s hope someone of suitable sensibility is the buyer.

  5. Keith FitzGerald-Gradwell says:

    My father, George Robert Gradwell, lived there as a child. My grandfather, Francis William Edward Gradwell was the last Gradwell to own Dowth Hall. – a lottery win too late now but keen to know who bought it and what the plans are for Dowth Hall’s future.

  6. Pauline says:

    what is the name of the john betjeman poem refering to this house
    thx Pauline

  7. danny says:

    Dowth Hall was bought by a local businessman who intends to restore it to its former glory

  8. danny says:

    Also would it be possible to get a copy of the poem? I wish to frame it and present it to the new owher as a housewarming gift

  9. danny says:

    I will see him tomorrow and let you know asap

  10. My name is Kyle M. Netterville, from Texas, USA. Could someone please contact me who is close to this story or events. I am a producer/director for PBS and I also freelance. I would be very interested in creating a documentary about my family history, the area and property/restoration.

    And for any other “Nettervilles” out there. If you can contribute to the family story please feel free to email me as well.

    • I will be in touch with you later this week: am travelling at present. If you haven’t heard from me in a few days, feel free to get back to me again about this matter.

      • Kyle M. Netterville says:

        Howdy, It’s been several weeks and I was wondering what else I could possibly find out about the restoration of the estate. And /or the local history of the Netterville name. Thanks.

      • Lest I didn’t reply to you due to other distractions, as yet work on the estate has yet to begin but please keep in touch and I can then let you know once there is more news. Thank you for your interest.

    • Bobbi says:

      Would like to know if/when you will be shooting your PBS Doc. Netterville cropped up crisscrossing my ancestry a few centuries ago….looks like the name made it to the USA – I’m curious as to this early emigration. Any info, please email. Thanks.

      • Warren Adrian Netterville Marwick (Lord) says:

        My name is Warren Marwick and I live in Perth, Western Australia. My family descend from the Viscount Netterville line from Dowth and lived in Co. Galway before venturing to the U.S>A> then returning to Ireland/England, then in 1870 left for Australia.. I have written two books about my own life, up until I was 35 years old… BUT. I have written quite a lot about the squabbles over the Netterville estate as my Gt. Gt. Grandmother was a Netterville involved with the family estate. Do you know there is a large monument to the last Viscount Netterville ,his wife and also his sister in a church in Dublin.
        I am interested in the restoration of Dowth House and anything to do with the Netterville family.
        Thanks,

        Best Wishes,
        Warren Adrian Netterville Marwick
        Lord Marwick of Netterville

      • Thank you for your interest. Still no news on Dowth but I do promise to report once anything more is known.

      • Judy says:

        I am also distantly related to the Netterville Family and live in Canada. My line is from the Hon Frances Netterville. It is all so interesting. I will be in Ireland in September and hope to learn more. Any suggestions as to where I should focus my time regarding the Nettervilles would be appreciated.
        Thank you,
        Judy

  11. Robert Netterville says:

    We had the priviledge of touring at least the lower level of the house when we visited the area in 2004 and have some pictures. The Pidgeons who lived there said that “The Last September” with Maggie Smith was filmed on the property in 1999. The film does have some good footage of the grounds and greenhouse, prior to its decline. We are direct decendents of William Netterville, born 1736 and immigrated to the US around 1760.

    Thank you for this update.

    Regards,
    Robert Netterville
    Lee’s Summit, MO

    • Thank you for getting in touch. I never saw the film of ‘The Last September’ altho’ I know the book well. I must try to get a copy to watch and spot the scenes featuring Dowth. At the moment, I believe the house’s future remains uncertain, but one must hope for the best. If there is any further information, I shall post an update…

  12. John Phelan says:

    Is Dowth Hall undergoing renovation as I know it was sold early last year?

  13. I suggest you might begin by making contact with Mr Tom French who is responsible for Local Studies in Meath County Libraries and is a fount of helpful knowledge: he can be reached at tfrench@meathcoco.ie
    I hope this is of some use.

  14. Aodhán says:

    Class article. Fair play to you. However, I wonder about the details behind your claim that the Nettervilles, Prestons and Plunketts of Killeen kept their land and the Catholicism. The reason is this: The Plunketts of Killeen and Dunsany are not far from me at all (actually the Killeen ones died out in the early 1980s, a few years after the Castle was set on fire). The story which is widespread if not universal in the locality is that the Plunketts of Dunsany, who became Protestant, actually legally owned the Killeen castle and lands but returned it to the Plunketts of Killeen when the Penal Laws outlawing Catholic ownership of land were removed (in the 1790s?). This could be a myth, but it’s the widely believed reason in this area for how the Killeen Plunketts kept their land (i.e. technically, they didn’t). If this is true, your assumption regarding the Penal Laws might need revisiting (“thereby disproving the idea that Catholics automatically suffered displacement during the Penal era”). As far as I understand it by 1772, when the first act repealing penal laws affecting Catholic landownership began, a mere 5% of Ireland’s land belonged to Catholics (it was only 1782 when Catholics could actually buy or inherit land). I think most of that 5% might have been in Connacht under a 1691 deal which allowed Catholics there to keep their land providing their swore an oath (something which other Catholics could not do after 1693 when the Pope sided with the Jacobite cause). I wonder was there a single Catholic landowner in the Pale before 1782.

    • Thank you for making contact and for your comments. Nevertheless I stand over my assertion that some (by no means all) Roman Catholic landowners retained possession of their property throughout the Penal period, including those I named but in this part of the country there were others such as the Bellews of Barmeath, County Louth and the Nugents (until the 19th century O’Reillys) of Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath. I recommend to you the late Charles Chenevix Trench’s 1998 book Grace’s Card: Irish Catholic Landlords 1690-1800, which contains accounts of many such families. In addition, there seems to be a widespread notion that the Penal Laws only affected the Irish. On the contrary, many English families which remained true to their old faith – they were generally known as Recusants as you are probably aware – suffered the same legal restrictions; for more on this, see the late Mark Bence-Jones’ 1992 book Catholic Families.

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