Writing to a friend in September 1795, the English Romantic poet Anna Seward, known during her lifetime as the Swan of Lichfield, reported ‘I must not conclude my letter without observing, that, on my second visit to the fairy palace [Llangollen Vale], a lovely Being cast around its apartments the soft lunar rays of her congenial beauty. — Mrs. Tighe, the wife of one of my friend’s nephews, an elegant and intelligent young woman, whom I should have observed more had his wife’s beauty been less. I used the word “lunar” as characteristic of that beauty, for it is not resplendent and sunny, like Mrs. Plummer’s, but, as it were, shaded, though exquisite. She is scarce two-and-twenty. Is it not too much that Aonian inspiration should be added to the cestus of Venus? She left an elegant and accurate sonnet, addressed to Lady E. Butler and her friend, on leaving their enchanting bowers.’
The ‘Mrs Tighe’ to whom Seward here refers was another poet, Mary Tighe, while ‘Lady E. Butler and her friend’ were the famous Ladies of Llangollen, and a house in Ireland, today a ruin, links them all together: Woodstock, County Kilkenny. Lady Elinor, who grew up in Kilkenny Castle, knew the place well since it was here in 1768 that she met her lifelong companion, Sarah Ponsonby. Lady Elinor was then aged 28, Miss Butler some fifteen years younger but they formed so close a bond that more than a decade later, braving the opprobrium of their respective families, and of society at large, they ran away together and set up home at Plas Newydd, near the Welsh town of Llangollen. Although living quietly and on a relatively modest income, they soon became famous and attracted visitors from throughout Britain and Ireland: Queen Charlotte wanted to see their house and persuaded George III to grant them a pension. Writers in particular were especially fascinated by the Ladies of Llangollen and among those who travelled to see them were Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. Plus, of course, both Anna Seward and Mary Tighe.
Mary Tighe (née Blachford) was born in 1772, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman who died when she was very young. Her mother Theodosia Tighe was an early supporter of John Wesley and Mary had a severely religious upbringing. At the age of twenty-one she married her first cousin Henry Tighe but it appears the union was not happy. In addition Mary soon began to manifest signs of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her.
From an early age she had written both poetry and prose but only in 1805 was her long poem Psyche, or the Legend of Love privately printed in an edition of just fifty copies. Nevertheless, it brought her considerable fame: in the same year Thomas Moore wrote his own poem To Mrs Henry Tighe on Reading her Psyche which opens with the lines, ‘Tell me the witching tale again/For never has my heart or ear/Hung on so sweet, so pure a strain/So pure to feel, so sweet to hear.’
Psyche is a six-canto allegorical poem in Spenserian stanzas recounting the classical myth of the love between Cupid and Psyche, and the travails the couple must endure before they can achieve happiness. In sentiment it is of its own era and not of ours, but stylistically the work is highly accomplished and one can understand why it achieved such renown in the early 19th century. A year after the death of the poem’s lovely young author in 1810 a new edition of Psyche, along with some of her other verses, was published and this helped to cement Mary Tighe’s fame across Europe.
Mary Tighe spent the final months of her short life at Woodstock which belonged to her brother-in-law William Tighe. Wonderfully located on high ground above the village of Inistioge and the river Nore, the house dates from around 1745 and is believed to have been designed by the architect Francis Bindon for Sir William Fownes. Its north-east front of six bays and three storeys over part-raised basement is notable for having an elaborate central doorway comprising the door itself and two flanking windows immediately above which is a niche which originally contained a life-size statue, and an oculus over that again. So deep is the building that it has a small inner courtyard to light the central rooms.
Woodstock was inherited by Sir William Fownes’ grandson William Tighe and c. 1804 he was responsible for adding the flanking single-storey wings with pedimented breakfronts, the designer of these being local architect William Robertson. The interior was especially noted for its fine library and a couple of old photographs show ceilings with elaborate rococo plasterwork. The main hall contained a white marble figure representing Mary Tighe carved by the Tuscan Lorenzo Bartolini some five years after her death. This has gone but her mausoleum survives in the graveyard attached to the former Augustinian priory of St Columbkill is Inistioge. Inside the severe neo-classical limestone structure is another life size figure carved by the English sculptor John Flaxman and showing the recumbent poet with a small winged figure – Inspiration perhaps? – crouching beside her head.
Set on sloping ground, the gardens of Woodstock were originally laid out in the ‘natural’ style popularized by Capability Brown. However they were transformed in the middle of the 19th century by Lady Louisa Tighe, wife of another William Tighe; Lady Louisa was the daughter of the fourth Duke of Richmond and therefore the great-niece of the Lennox sisters who made such an impact on Ireland during the previous century (as anyone familiar with Stella Tillyard’s 1995 book Aristocrats will remember). Late in life, Lady Louisa who was born in 1803 recalled attending her mother the Duchess of Richmond’s legendary ball in Brussels, held three days before the Battle of Waterloo: ‘I well remember the Gordon Highlanders dancing reels at the ball. My mother thought it would interest foreigners to see them…some of the poor men who danced in our house died at Waterloo.’ (A piece of trivial information: four years after Waterloo, the Duke, by then Governor General of Canada, was bitten by a pet fox and subsequently died of rabies.)
Working with her then-head gardener Pierce Butler, Lady Louisa’s interventions at Woodstock were extensive, beginning with a series of three terraces to the immediate west of the walled garden. The middle of these three was aligned to the south with a large circular conservatory designed by the Dublin iron master Richard Turner. This work completed and Pierce Butler having died, Lady Louisa then embarked on another major project with her new head gardener Scotsman Charles McDonald: the creation of a winter garden to the immediate rear of the house. Consisting of four sunken panels each filled with elaborately planted parterres, its creation involved the removal of more than 200,000 cubic yards of soil and the building of massive granite embankments. Extant photographs indicate the style of these gardens to be of the kind now found only in municipal parks, with lines of bright bedding plants and even at Woodstock pathways of different coloured gravel. Less lurid elements elsewhere in the demesne included an arboretum, yew walk and rose garden, Monkey Puzzle and Noble Fir avenues, a grotto, rustic summer house and various other features.
Lady Louisa and William Tighe had no living children and although she remained in residence at Woodstock until her death in 1900 the estate passed to her husband’s nephew Frederick Tighe who in turn left it to his son Edward. Perhaps because Lady Louisa continued to live in the house, this branch of the family spent less time at Woodstock and once the War of Independence broke out the Tighes brought the house’s more valuable furniture and pictures to England. It proved a judicious move since the building was occupied first by members of the hated Black and Tans and then by the Free State Army. The latter left Woodstock on July 1st 1922 and the following day it was set alight, most probably by anti-Treaty forces. All the remaining contents, including the library and Bartolini’s statue of Mary Tighe, were destroyed in the blaze. It was, like so many similar occurrences of the period, an entirely gratuitous act of vandalism that did nothing other than rob Ireland of another part of her cultural heritage.
Woodstock has stood a ruin ever since, its external walls now needing support if they are not to fall down. In recent years Kilkenny County Council has undertaken extensive restoration of the gardens which are open to the public and much prized. The pity is that the once splendid house which was their centerpiece and source of meaning provided should remain a hollow shell. If only in memory of the poet Mary Tighe, Woodstock deserves better than its present condition.
*From the first Canto of Psyche.
A new biography of Mary Tighe by Miranda O’Connell has just been published by the Somerville Press.