The roofline of a greenhouse in the walled garden at Tullynally, County Westmeath. Dating from around 1820, it has been built against a brick wall and facing south. Originally used for growing fruit such as peaches and grapes, the building retains its timber frame and fish-scale glass sheets, now something of a rarity in Ireland.
The generous proportions of the front door in the entrance hall at Ballymacmoy, County Cork. Since the early 18th century the house has been home to successive generations of Hennessys, one of whom Richard emigrated to France where he became an officer in the famous Dillon’s Regiment before settling in the Cognac region and founding the eponymous family firm. The present building dates from the second decade of the 19th century, replacing an older property when its excessively heavy slates caused the roof to collapse, killing a pig and a goose, and injuring a beggar who unfortunately happened just then to call to the door.
One of the series of doors found at the base of the stairs in the south hall at Ballyhaise, County Cavan. While the core of the house dates from c.1730, this part of the building was extensively remodelled and extended early in the following century. The doorcases, with their ribbed pilasters and feathered capitals beneath expansive arched fans, date from that period.
‘Therefore his servants said to him, “Let a young woman be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms, that my lord the king may be warm”.’ (1 Kings 1:2).
William Ponsonby-Barker of Kilcooley, County Tipperary was an ardent evangelical Christian and in the years prior to his death in 1877 he would habitually emulate the example of King David in the Old Testament, and take a young woman to bed with him – strictly for the purposes of keeping his elderly body warm. The human hot water bottle would, it is said, be chosen from among the housemaids lined up after evening prayers. In his book Twilight of the Ascendency (1987) Mark Bence-Jones tells that on one occasion, the maid selected by Ponsonby-Barker ‘offended his olfactory sensibilities, so he sprinkled her liberally from a bottle which he took in the dark to contain eau de cologne but which in fact contained ink!’ Of course it may be that the owner of Kilcooley was following the strictures of his late mother. According to the American Quaker Asenath Nicholson who recorded a visit to the estate in her 1847 book Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, ‘the pleasure of walking over these delightful fields is enhanced by the knowledge that his tenants are made so happy by his kindness. To every widow he gives a pension of £12 a year; and to every person injuring himself in his employment, the same sum yearly, as long as the injury lasts. His mother was all kindness, and her dying injunction to him was, “To be good to the poor”…His mother, whom he ardently loved, was buried in a vault on the premises; and his grief at her death was such that he left the domain for twelve months. He supports a dispensary for the poor, who resort to it twice a week, and receive medicine from a physician who is paid some sixty pounds a year for his attendance.’
From the 12th century onwards Kilcooley belonged to the Cistercian order which built a fine abbey there. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the land passed into the possession of the Butlers, Earls of Ormonde. In 1636 the twelfth earl (and future first Duke of Ormonde) in turn sold Kilcooley to the Norfolk-born judge Sir Jerome Alexander for £4,200. Following his death in 1670, the estate was bequeathed to a daughter Elizabeth Alexander, on the condition that she did not marry an Irishman. In the event her husband was another lawyer, William Barker who had been born in Essex: he had already been granted 3,300 acres in Limerick in 1667 and received a further 1,300 acres in Tipperary in 1678; three months prior to his marriage in June 1676 he was made a baronet, the first of four all confusingly bearing the same first name. Successive Sir William Barkers lived in the mediaeval Kilcooley Abbey, adapted as a private residence. However, each of them also seems to have considered the notion of building a new residence, only the last of the line doing so. On succeeding his father at some date on or before 1719, the second baronet thought to construct both an alternative house and an adjacent market town but in the event did neither. Following the marriage of his heir in July 1736 to Mary Quin of Adare Sir William wrote of plans to build ‘as fine and elegant a private gentleman’s seat as any in Europe and inland market as ye country could afford, instead of botching it now about old Abbey walls not proper adapted to be anything called polite’. But nothing happened either then or until around the time the last Sir William inherited Kilcooley on the death of his father in 1770. Ten years earlier he had married Catherine Lane and around this time was handed responsibility for the estate. A stone in the stable yard bearing the date 1762 certainly suggests work was done on the property then, so perhaps the core of the present house dates from the same period.
As built by the fourth Barker baronet, Kilcooley conformed to the Palladian style then beginning to go out of fashion; this certainly suggests an earlier date than c.1790 which was traditionally given. Owing to alterations made in the 19th century after a fire, it is difficult to see the original form of the house. Looking towards a lake created in 1789 at the cost of just over £442 the entrance front is of seven bays and two storeys over elevated basement. Arched links on either side lead to pedimented pavilions and these in turn link to quadrants giving access to service yards: rubble-filled niches and oculi visible beneath later render hint at the building’s earlier form. The garden front looks across parkland towards the romantic ruins of the old abbey. On this side, the house has a central breakfront of three bays broken up by four giant Ionic limestone pilasters and ending in a parapet supporting eagles and urns. Access on this side, as on the entrance front, is via a double flight of balustraded stone steps. Single bays on either side lead, again as on the other side of the house, to pedimented pavilions and thence to a further run of buildings, including a pretty hexagonal model dairy. The aforementioned fire – of which more below – gutted the central block of the house (Asenath Nicholson specifically mentions the loss of a fine library) but appears to have spared the wings. Thus it is possible to gain a sense of the interior of Kilcooley in these sections of the building. On one side, for example, there is a fine cantilevered stone staircase which looks to be 18th century (and although intended for use by servants is actually handsomer than that used by the owners). At the other end of the house are a couple of rooms with tall lugged doorcases and coved ceilings. One of these still retains its arabesque rococo stuccowork, as well as a tall, slender marble chimneypiece.
The strict Christian beliefs of William Ponsonby-Baker may have led to the fire that destroyed the central block of Kilcooley. One day in 1839 a woman arrived at the house with a small child who, she said, had been fathered by the butler, a Mr Ashby. So shocked was Ponsonby-Barker by his employee’s behaviour that he immediately fired Ashby: as the house maids had already discovered, there were consequence to being in service at Kilcooley. In revenge, Ashby packed the chimney in the library with paper and set it alight. As a result, the building was gutted and as Asenath Nicholson commented ‘An elegant library was lost’ along with many of the other contents. Kilcooley’s owner set about rebuilding the house, where work was completed in 1843. Certain alterations were made at this time to both exterior and interior. Regarding the latter, canted bay windows were inserted on the ground floor of both the entrance and garden fronts (originally those on the main facade were bows), and a second storey with balustrade loggias added to the links between main block and wings, as a result of which the building gained space but lost some of its lightness. Internally, a new main cantilevered stone staircase was created to one side, lit by an arched window on the return. An enfilade of reception rooms overlooks the mediaeval abbey on the garden side; these appear to be following the original house’s ground plan, although a portion of the central room was shaved off to create an antechamber. Meanwhile to the front one finds the dining room and library: both of these are half-paneled in oak, as is the entrance hall between them. This last is unquestionably Kilcooley’s most striking feature, an enormous double-height space with first floor gallery, the whole lit by a glazed dome: interestingly hot water pipes run around the base of the dome, evidently in an effort to ensure the gallery wasn’t too cold. Below runs a vast basement, with a central passage providing access to a wealth of storage and staff rooms, including in one of the wings a lofty kitchen, again probably part of the original building as it still has a central octagon through which smoke would once have escaped.
More on Kilcooley next Monday…
The east-facing garden front of Corravahan, County Cavan. Dating from c.1840 the building shares many characteristics with the slightly earlier and considerably larger See House at Kilmore in the same county (see See and Believe, September 14th last). This is hardly surprising as both were designed by the same architect, William Farrell. Just as importantly whilst Corravahan was commissioned by then-local rector, the Rev. Marcus Gervais Beresford, the See House had been built on the instructions of his father, George de la Poer Beresford, Bishop of Kilmore. Ultimately Marcus Beresford would succeed to the same bishopric (by then united with the See of Ardagh) before being appointed Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in 1862. His immediate predecessor in this position was a cousin, Lord John George de la Poer Beresford: one might almost suspect nepotism was a feature of the 19th century Anglican church in Ireland. The present owners of Corravahan, who have spent recent years restoring the house, believe the ground floor bay window to the left is a later addition, perhaps added by a subsequent owner, the Rev. Charles Leslie or a member of his family.
Mention has been made recently of George IV’s visit to Ireland in 1821, and the time he spent with his mistress Lady Conyngham in Slane Castle, County Meath. Here is a view of the ceiling in the castle’s saloon on which – if any horizontal position was assumed during the time spent there – he likely gazed. The history of the building’s construction and decoration is complex, and seems to have involved a number of architects. It has been proposed that an amalgam of Francis Johnston and Thomas Hopper was responsible for the design of the saloon, its historically inaccurate but delightful Gothic dome from c.1813 featuring twenty miniature fan vaults which lie between the same number of ribs all leading to a central boss from which is suspended the single candelabra.
One of the most persistent myths in this country is that 17th and 18th century legislation collectively known as the Penal Laws was specifically anti-Irish. This was not the case. A similar series of laws was also passed by the Parliament in London and with the same aim: to place at disadvantage anyone, regardless of nationality, not a member of the Established (that is Anglican) Church. From the second half of the 17th century onwards in England, Wales and Scotland, as in Ireland, all non-conformists were excluded from civil and military office, and were not permitted to receive a degree from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. England’s Corporation Act of 1661, for example, obliged all municipal officials to take Anglican communion thereby ensuring non-conformists were unable to hold public office. The Act of Uniformity introduced the following year made the Anglican Book of Common Prayer compulsory at religious services (over 2,000 clergy found it impossible to comply with this obligation and accordingly resigned their positions). The Penal Laws were harsh towards denominations other than Roman Catholic. Presbyterians for example found it just as challenging to practice their faith and this explains why so many members of the sect (estimated to have been more than 400,000) having moved to Ulster in order to escape persecution, during the 18th century emigrated to colonial America where they were able to enjoy greater religious liberties.
It is true that for a long time Roman Catholics were looked upon with particular suspicion by successive British governments. This was at least in part because the Papacy forbade Catholics from taking the Oath of Supremacy which declared the English monarch to be rightful head of that country’s church; even without state legislation Catholics thus debarred themselves from holding public office since swearing the oath was a legal requirement for anyone wishing to do so. The Act of Settlement passed in 1701 by the English parliament remains in force to the present day, and continues to prevent a member of that country’s royal family from becoming or marrying a Catholic and still retaining rights of succession. The English, like the Irish, can have long memories: until the 19th century they would recall Regnans in Excelsis, the bull issued by Pius V in 1570 which declared Elizabeth I to be a heretic and released her subjects from allegiance to the queen, as well as summarily excommunicating anyone who had obeyed her orders. And even today they remember the Gunpowder Plot, the 410th anniversary of which falls in a few weeks’ time: that occasion in November 1605 when a group of Roman Catholics planned to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament by James I. Even though anti-Catholic legislation was gradually repealed or allowed to fall into abeyance, as late as 1780 hostility against Catholics was virulent in some quarters. In that year and in reaction to the Papists Act of 1778 the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots broke out in London; the resultant looting and destruction was more serious than any civil disturbance since seen in the English capital.
Despite the many disadvantages under which they suffered, not least grave financial penalties, some Roman Catholic families in England, Wales and Scotland continued to practise their faith and to hold onto their property. Known as Recusants owing to their refusal to attend Anglican services, the story of their survival was told by Mark Bence-Jones in his 1992 book The Catholic Families. This is by way of a preamble to noting that likewise in Ireland even in the face of the Penal legislation a number of old Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman families somehow managed to hold onto both their religion and their land. The history of some of them can in turn be read in the 1997 book Grace’s Card: Irish Catholic Landlords 1690-1800 by Charles Chenevix Trench (whose great-grandfather had been Anglican Archbishop of Dublin from 1863-1886). The Prestons, who as Lords Gormanston were bearers of the oldest vicomital title in Britain and Ireland retained their estate in County Meath, as did the Plunketts who as Earls of Fingall held the premier earldom in this country. Other untitled families likewise kept some, if not all of their former lands. The Hiberno-Norse Deases are known to have settled in what is now Westmeath in the second half of the 13th century. There they remained until the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries during which they were dispossessed on several occasions, yet kept returning to their ancestral estate. Throughout this and subsequent eras, and regardless of the rigour of the Penal Laws to which they like everyone else was subject, they also remained true to the Roman Catholic faith of their forebears. Among their number, Thomas Dease served as Catholic Bishop of Meath from 1622-51 having previously acted as rector of the Irish seminary in Paris.
In the first years of the 19th century the Deases built a new house on the site of an earlier property. Called Turbotstown this Greek-revival building’s design has long been attributed to the prolific Francis Johnston and indeed aspects of Turbotstown bear similarities to other examples of his work. The cut-limestone exterior is severe, of three bays and two storeys with a central Ionic columned porch marking the entrance: a first floor Wyatt window is of the same width as the half-glazed double doors beneath. To one side is a lower two-storey wing which then wraps around to incorporate a service yard: in part of this can be found the Deases’ former private chapel where presumably they worshipped prior to providing the land for the construction of a Roman Catholic church nearby. The main block has a dignified simplicity which emphasises the generous proportions of the high-ceilinged rooms. The house’s most striking feature is its inner hall, the centre of its ceiling opening to a first-floor circular gallery above which in turn rises an octagonal lantern which provides light for otherwise windowless areas. In an adjoining double-height space the cantilevered staircase lit by a large arched window on the return has decorative wrought-iron balusters supporting a mahogany handrail. Indeed space and grace are the two distinguishing features of Turbotstown. Although the Deases ceased to occupy the house in the last century and it passed for a period into other hands, eleven years ago it was bought back by descendants of the family. Since then the present owners have been engaged in the restoration of Turbotstown, a fitting tribute to an old Irish Roman Catholic family which remained in possession of its property throughout the dark days of the Penal Laws and beyond.