A view of the entrance hall at Ballynagall, County Westmeath. The house dates from c.1808 when it was built at an estimated cost of £30,000 for James Gibbons to a design by Francis Johnston. This photograph was taken in 1961, a year before the contents of the house were sold: within two decades the building itself had been stripped of its fittings and left to fall into ruin. The photograph below shows the same entrance hall today. I shall be discussing the plight of Ballynagall, and several other houses which have seen their contents sold, at a conference on Art in the Country House being held at Dublin Castle next Thursday, April 23rd. For more information on this event, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/art-in-the-country-house
The gatelodge at Ballynegall, County Westmeath. Designed by Francis Johnston in 1808 the building provided a perfect introduction to the estate, its features emulating in miniature those of the main house. Tragically some twenty years after its exceptional contents were sold at auction, the house was stripped and gutted in the early 1980s, and is now a roofless shell. The lodge on the other hand remains, a sad remembrance of what once stood but has been lost at the end of the drive.
At some unknown date in the 1620s a man called Michael Tisdall moved from England to Ireland where he first established himself in Castleblayney, County Monaghan. The following decade he married Anne Singleton whose family were likewise recent settlers in the country. The couple had seven sons and two daughters, the heir, born 1637, also named Michael Tisdall. He was the first generation to make an advantageous marriage, his wife being Anne Barry. Her father, the Rev. William Barry of Killucan, County Westmeath (who had nineteen children from two marriages) was the elder brother of James Barry, a clever lawyer who rose to become Chief Justice of the King’s Bench (Ireland) and a Privy Counsellor before being ennobled as Baron Barry of Santry. Incidentally, the last of this line Henry Barry, fourth Lord Santry was the only Irish nobleman to be convicted of murder by his peers and sentenced to death in April 1739 after he had run a tavern porter through with his sword while drunk the previous year: he subsequently received a royal pardon, with his title and estates returned to him. History does not relate what became of the poor tavern porter’s family.
Meanwhile the younger Michael Tisdall, who like his wife’s uncle practised law, seems to have lived a more exemplary life, primarily in Dublin although he began to acquire property elsewhere. In 1668 he leased the manor of Martry, County Meath containing 1,900 acres from Nicholas Darcy whose family had owned property in the region for the previous three centuries. However, as Roman Catholics and supporters of Charles I, the Darcys suffered financial setbacks, not least due to government fines during the Commonwealth, and so in 1672 Michael Tisdall was able to buy Martry outright. After he died in 1681, the estate passed to his son William, then still a minor since he had only been born in 1668; as a result, the property was managed by an uncle, James Tisdall who served as M.P. for Ardee, County Louth in successive Irish parliaments from 1692 onwards. Around the date he was first elected his nephew William married Frances FitzGerald, sister of Robert, nineteenth Earl of Kildare: she was thus aunt of James FitzGerald, first Duke of Leinster, a useful family connection for her children. The eldest of these, the third Michael Tisdall replaced his great-uncle James as Ardee’s Member of Parliament in 1713 and six years later married Catherine Palmer whose politician father William Palmer had served as Chief Secretary for Ireland in the mid-1690s as well as M.P. first for Kildare and then later for Castlebar, County Mayo. However, as a rule the Tisdall males were not long-living and thus the third Michael died in 1727 at the age of thirty-three leaving a seven-year old heir named Charles.
During his long minority, the now-considerable estate of Charles Tisdall was managed by three trustees including a neighbouring landowner, William Waller of Allenstown, County Meath and an uncle, the Rev. George Tisdall. Young Charles stayed in Dublin with his mother who had remarried, her second husband being the Rev. Edward Hudson. After taking his degree at Trinity College Dublin Charles embarked on the first of several visits to mainland Europe during which he spent time in Italy. Finally in 1740 he assumed responsibility for his own affairs and undertook work on the family’s lands in County Meath. Given that he had not lived there for much of his life, and that his father had been an infrequent visitor, the property at Martry – now known as Mount Tisdall – had deteriorated and was in need of attention if it were to produce a decent income for the owner. On the other hand, Charles Tisdall remained a traveller for the rest of his life, moving around Ireland as well as paying trips to England and further: in October 1741, for example, he was in Paris where fashionable purchases included a gold-topped cane for £5 13s and nine pence, and a gold repeating watch for £20, 9s and sixpence. (We know about these items thanks to an extant account book kept by Charles Tisdall for the period 1740-51 which details not only what he bought but also what he spent: this book forms the basis for Marion Rogan’s Charles Tisdall of County Meath, 1740-51 published last year by Four Courts Press in its Maynooth Studies in Local History series.)
A need to modernise and improve the house at Mount Tisdall led to considerable expenditure over the years it was in Charles Tisdall’s possession. In February 1743 he had the wainscoting of the ‘big parlour’ refitted, and the following year spent £2 15s on a looking glass for the room. In July 1745 he paid £3 for a large mahogany dining table and some years before had ordered a suite of furniture ‘red velvit embroidered with gold’ from Paris at a cost of £91 4s. At the same time, he had embarked on building a new residence three miles away, which he named Charlesfort. The design for this can be confidently attributed to the period’s most fashionable architect, since the account book records in February 1743 ‘To Mr Richard Castle when he gave me the plan for my house. I bargained with him for twenty guineas for his plan, & a guinea every day he overlook’d the execution £20.’ Eventually in 1751 Charles moved into Charlesfort and Mount Tisdall was rented, initially to a John Murray. The Tisdalls retained ownership of the estate until the death of Charles’ grandson in 1835 when it was sold to the Barnewalls, an old Meath family who were Lords Trimlestown.
The expenditure listed in Charles Tisdall’s account book indicates a house already existed on his County Meath estate, albeit one that had been little used for many years. It is presumably this building which forms the core of the present property, considered to have been five bays wide and two bays deep, in other words probably each floor held little more than a single room on either side of the central hall. So it seems to have remained until 1858 when Mount Tisdall, by now called Bloomsbury, was greatly enlarged for Richard Barnewall. The architect responsible was William Caldbeck, a competent but not especially imaginative practitioner who specialised in banks and religious institutions, his clientele in both cases likely to have preferred the familiar over the innovative. Such is the case at Bloomsbury where to the rear of the old house Caldbeck added a large two-storey over semi-basement range with a seven-bay garden front; the three centre bays break forward and are defined by full height pilasters and round-headed French windows on the ground floor while flights of steps descend to what were once formal gardens. Similar pilasters to those on the garden front were added at corners of the entire building and from the centre bay of the façade projjects a limestone portico with Ionic columns, the facade finished with a pediment. To one side of the house is a long service yard with handsome stables and other outbuildings, an exceptionally handsome gothic-style greenhouse running along one wall.
This structure, like the rest of the site, is now in advanced decay. Bloomsbury remained in the ownership of the Barnewalls until the last century and then at some date in the 1920s it was sold to the Whaley family who continued to look after the place. As recently as 2001 Kevin V Mulligan could write ‘The gardens of Bloomsbury are amongst the finest in the country, lovingly cared for by the owner, Jack Whaley, who has written extensively on gardens and his family.’ Indeed Mr Whaley published several books on gardens, but the one on which he lavished care now displays little evidence of its former glories. In the present century Bloomsbury was sold to a new owner who embarked on a blitzkrieg of the entire place: as can be seen, the house was stripped literally down to its bare walls inside and out while the rest of the estate was permitted to fall into hopeless decay. Whatever the eventual intention, the project was then abandoned and the property left without care. The outcome is that what just a decade ago was a fine historic house with associated buildings is today at risk of being lost forever.
One building on the Bloomsbury estate is of outstanding importance: an 18th century boathouse. Located at a point on the estate where two rivers meet, this is a legacy of Charles Tisdall’s proprietorship. The aforementioned account book contains information on a number of items of expenditure related to the boathouse. In July 1742 for example he bought a boat from Thomas Taylour of Headfort for £30 11s, and in June 1744 spent £1 2s and nine pence having the vessel painted. The building must date from around this period. Some fourteen feet in diameter, it is octagonal in shape and constructed of brick resting on a stone base. The plainness of the exterior walls is relieved by hollow roundels just below the onset of the dome. Access to the boathouse proper is via a flight of steps on one of the sides; these descend to a large space with an arched opening to the water (although changing levels means direct access to the river is no longer possible). Above this is a single chamber, presumably intended for summer dining and other such pleasures, entered via a door at the top of a short flight of steps. One side of the room is given over to a fireplace; its chimney cleverly doubles as the pinnacle on the roof. Of the other six sides, three hold windows, each offering a view of the rivers below, and the three have tall niches still holding the remnants of plasterwork, as does the domed ceiling. Charles Tisdall must have been proud of this little gem, since in August 1744 he bought for it an urn of Ardbraccan limestone costing £3 16s, and in April 1750 he spent spent over £4 two shillings on ‘whitening and painting the summer house and boat.’
There are only a handful of similar structures remaining in this country, among them the Belvedere at Dromoland, County Clare (see With Panoramic Views, Jan 29th 2014) which dates from approximately the same time, and the boathouse in the grounds of Leixlip Castle, County Kildare which is believed to have been built a few decades later. There is also an 18th century octagonal summer house with ovoid interior in the grounds of Mallow Castle, County Cork; photographs indicate this is in poor condition. The boathouse at Bloomsbury is likewise not in good shape but continues to survive, if somewhat precariously as vegetation threatens to widen cracks already apparent in the roof and an inexorably damp location has had repercussions on the fabric. But if the building is lost altogether, that would represent a serious loss to the country’s architectural heritage.
Ballyragget Castle, County Kilkenny is a late 15th century tower house originally built by a branch of the Butler family one of whom, Richard Butler became first Viscount Mountgarret in 1550; his mother, the spirited Lady Margaret FitzGerald, Countess of Ormond is said to have lived here. Butlers continued to occupy the building until 1788 when they moved into a house close by. Surrounded by a bawn wall and climbing four or five storeys high with fine crenellations and handsome cut stone windows, the castle could easily be put to good use, not least as a tourist attraction. Instead it stands on the edge of a farmyard, all doors and other points of ingress sealed by concrete breeze blocks. An admirable example of how to treat the country’s built heritage…
For hundreds of years the Prestons were one of the most significant land-owning families in County Meath, their name deriving from the town of Preston in Lancashire whence they moved to Ireland in the early 14th century. Originally merchants, one of their number, Roger de Preston studied law, was appointed Justice in the Court of Common Pleas in 1327 and four years later became a Justice of the Court of King’s Bench. His son Robert likewise was a successful lawyer, becoming Irish King’s Serjeant around 1348 and Attorney General for Ireland in 1355. A few years afterwards rebellion against the crown erupted in Leinster, led by the Irish Aesthete’s more bellicose O’Byrne forebears in alliance with the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs: in the ensuing war Robert de Preston served as lieutenant to Edward III’s son Lionel, Duke of Clarence and was duly knighted for his efforts. Subsequently created Baron Gormanston, the title taken from lands he bought in Meath, he ended his career as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer. His great-grandson Sir Robert Preston further improved the family’s circumstances, being appointed Deputy both to Sir John Dynham, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and to the Lord Lieutenant Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV. In 1478 he was created Viscount Gormanston: his descendant the 17th Viscount is bearer of the oldest vicomital title in Ireland and Britain. Inevitably the Gormanstons were involved in the political and religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries. Remaining true to their Roman Catholic faith and to Kings Charles I and James II (the seventh Viscount fought on the latter’s side at the Battle of the Boyne and then defended Limerick), they saw their lands forfeited by both the Commonwealth government and that of William III. Yet the ninth Viscount managed to regain possession of the majority of the Gormanston estate under the terms of the 1691 Treaty of Limerick, even if his right to a title was not recognised (that feat was only achieved by the twelth Viscount in 1800). As a result, the family returned to live in Meath where the main residence was Gormanston Castle. By the second quarter of the 18th century their position was sufficiently secure and their income sufficiently great for the tenth Lord Gormanston to build himself a hunting lodge in another part of the county at Whitewood.
Among the collection of Gormanston papers now in the possession of the National Library of Ireland is a folio of architectural drawings including one showing plans for Whitewood in c.1735. This features not just the house and ancillary structures but also elements of the surrounding landscape as either intended or executed. The drawing is signed ‘By J. Sheridan’ but the identity of this person remains unknown. He may simply have been a draughtsman since the design of Whitewood has for long been attributed to Richard Castle, based on similarities with other houses from his practice, and to certain stylistic traits it shares with the likes of Gormanston Castle and Hazelwood, County Sligo. Whitewood, of course, is much smaller than either of these properties, as would befit its status as a secondary residence.
Constructed from cut limestone, the building has an east-facing three-bay facade of two storeys over raised basement. A shallow parapet partially conceals the hipped roof and two central chimneys. The north and south fronts are likewise of three bays while that to the west, which has a superlative view down to Whitewood Lake, is of five bays. The dominant feature of the exterior is a stone staircase which extends far out to the front, initial flights to north and south meeting to create what is almost like a viewing platform before they ascend over an arch and thereby reach the relatively modest door with plain fanlight. Inside the decoration is likewise devoid of superfluities. The main floor layout is symmetrical, with rooms to left and right of the narrow entrance passage, the stair hall behind likewise having spaces on either side. There are simple cornices, Kilkenny marble chimney pieces, fielded panels to the woodwork, flagged floors and well-worn limestone steps leading up and down. There is no pretension to grandeur here; this is a functional building.
The significance of Whitewood lies not just in its being a rare survival of an Irish 18th century hunting lodge, but even more in its unique setting. The house lies at the centre of a meticulously selected and improved landscape not found anywhere else. Whitewood is set on top of a rise with spectacular views particularly to east and west: as has already been mentioned, the latter offers a prospect down to the lake. The view to the east is of equal consequence, dominated by a long, straight avenue leading to the entrance gates, beyond which the ground once more gently rises to woodland closing the horizon. On an axis with the house, the avenue appears on early maps of the area, suggesting it was most likely part of the original design of the property. This would be in keeping with taste of the time, such long straight approaches being in fashion for parkland design from the second half of the 17th century onwards. Usually of course they led to a substantial palace whereas the house at Whitewood is of modest proportions. Nevertheless a lot of effort was expended on its avenue which is a man-made construction, a raised earthwork some sixty-two feet wide with ditches supported by low stone walls on either side. One wonders if perhaps it was a relief work undertaken to give local employment during the great freeze and famine of 1740-41: this would explain why such a very substantial project was undertaken at Whitewood. A section of grass flanking the central drive is in turn closed by matching lines of Beech and other trees. Visitors arriving at the gates are thus introduced to an Arcadian park uninterrupted until it terminates in the remote distance with the house on raised ground. The impression is given at the gates that the avenue continues directly to the front door. In fact, while continuing much of the way, it then swings to the north, so that an open lawn protected by ha-ha immediately in front of the building offers its occupants an unspoilt outlook. Meanwhile the diverted route passes by a lodge and sundry buildings which would have been used in the management of this pocket estate.
Whitewood remained part of the Gormanston estate until the last century, many of its residents being employees. Such was the case with the present owner’s family: his forebears were already living in the house when the Land Commission offered it for sale: with customary crassness, the same state organisation also proposed demolishing the historic building and replacing it with a bungalow. Thankfully the family which had, and continues to have, a deep attachment to the house, turned down this proposal. Thereafter they maintained Whitewood at the centre of what today continues to be a working farm. In a report on the property compiled in 2010, garden consultant Finola Reid observed that Whitewood is a rare surviving example of a small country house framed within its original demesne: ‘The creation of its designed landscape enabled the house to be experienced within an appropriate context and setting. The exceptional quality of taste and execution in the various built structures associated with the house, complemented by the carefully considered arrangement of tree plantings, plantations, and the long straight avenue directly connects the designed and natural landscape with the Palladian house at the core. There are few other surviving Irish 18th century landscapes contemporary with Whitewood and those that do survive are themselves highly significant and recognized as worthy of preservation.’
The present owner is well aware of his responsibilities as the present generation’s custodian of this significant part of Ireland’s architectural and landscape heritage. As well as undertaking a programme of conservation work on the main building, he has engaged in replanting the historic woodland and at present is restoring the original lodge. And yet the integrity of Whitewood and its setting is now threatened by a proposal to erect a series of wind turbines in the immediate vicinity. The scheme, submitted by a private company called Cregg Wind Farm Ltd, would see the installation of half a dozen such structures each up to 150 metres high. These would be located on land beyond, but directly in front of, Whitewood, towering over the entire region and thereby destroying a prospect unspoiled for centuries. Standing on the steps of the building, one would no longer see an idyllic natural landscape but six vast edifices.
Thankfully this grotesque proposal was refused by the Meath County Council last December. However the company has now appealed to the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, and submissions in relation to the appeal will be accepted until later this week. Finola Reid rightly described Whitewood as ‘a rare survivor and worthy of the highest level of protection.’ That protection must extend to the wider environment in which the house is located. The context in which the house and other elements exist needs to be fully understood and cherished. This site was not chosen at random: it was singled out and developed because of the outstanding character of the broader landscape in the area. Should that landscape be violated as Cregg Wind Farm Ltd proposes, then the fundamental character of Whitewood would be forever destroyed. And that would be an appalling vista.
Line drawing by Liam Mulligan and watercolour by Jeremy Williams.
Since last Monday’s post about Carstown, County Louth excited some interest (see: A Lamentable Waste, January 26th), readers might like to know that ownership of this house and its history have been better chronicled over the past few centuries than is the case for many other such places. Above is a map drawn up in December 1774 by cartographer Charles Frizell Jr. who performed a similar service for estates across Ireland. At that time Carstown was owned by Edward Smith-Stanley, future Earl of Derby (and originator of the annual race at Epsom Downs that bears his name) whose mother, the heiress Lucy Smith, had inherited the property. Her forebear was Erasmus Smith who in the previous century had endowed a number of schools including that in Drogheda so shamefully demolished in 1989 (see: On the Town I, January 12th last). Ten years after Lord Stanley sold the estate to Miles Chester, for whose descendant Miss Henrietta Chester another map was published in 1856 (see below) at which date it was part of an estate running to 1,962 acres inherited from her father who had died the same year. Henrietta Chester lived until 1913 after which Carstown was inherited by her great-nephew, Edward Ryan whose family lived at Inch, County Tipperary: eight years after he died in 1939 his widow Rita sold the house and contents; the first photograph in Monday’s post was taken not long before that occurrence.
For a variety of reasons, some of which have been discussed here before, Ireland possesses a disproportionately small number of domestic dwellings from the 16th and 17th centuries. One might expect therefore that any remaining examples of architecture of this period would be especially cherished. The case of Carstown Manor, County Louth demonstrates the fallacy of such a supposition. As will be shown below, much about Carstown’s origins are, as so often, unclear. However, two pieces of on-site evidence help to date the building even if not exactly in the form it has today. These are a pair of carved limestone plaques, one at the centre of a massive chimney piece in what would have been the main reception room, the other directly above the entrance door. Although differing in shape, they carry the same details, namely the date 1612, a coat of arms combining those of two families, and the initials OP and KH. These stand for Oliver Plunkett and his wife Katherine Hussey, who came from Galtrim, County Meath. Both families were long settled in this part of the country, Oliver being the grandson of another Oliver Plunkett, first Baron Louth and also related to the slightly later Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh who was executed in 1681 and canonised in 1975. The alliance between the Plunketts and the Husseys was thus one linking two important dynasties of the Pale. The plaques may be presumed to indicate either the couple’s marriage or the date on which they completed work of some kind at Carstown.
Carstown is a south-facing five-bay single-storey house over raised basement, the attic lit by gabled dormer windows believed to have been inserted at some date later than the main building’s construction. The façade is notable for a number of oddities, among them the substantial protruding chimneystack on the west gable: that on the east is incorporated into the house. The raised doorway, reached by a flight of stone steps projecting some twenty-four feet out from the house, is off-centre, closer to the east than the west. Add the intermittent use of brick and the fact that some of the dormers are taller than others and it is easy to see why all these anomalies have encouraged speculation into the origins of Carstown, the lands of which appears to have been in Plunkett ownership long before 1612. The most common explanation for the building’s unusual appearance is that it began as a late 15th/early 16th century tower house which stood on the site of the two eastern bays. This theory is strengthened by the existence of a cut-stone arch surviving in the north-west corner of this part of the basement, suggesting it was the tower house’s entrance; a curve in the wall immediately to the north would also propose this was where the spiral staircase began. Throughout the country there are examples of similar buildings being modernised by incorporation into later structures, the whole often then rendered so as to conceal where the old work ended and the new began. Clearly at Carstown the latter started fairly early because the internal plaque of 1612 serves as keystone of a chimneypiece measuring almost nine feet wide and five feet high; this would have heated a space serving as the house’s great hall. Additional work carried out in either the late 18th century or early decades of the 19th century – when it seems most of the fine yard buildings were erected – have further muddled matters, not least because at that time a three-bay, three-storey extension was added behind the main block, thereby giving Carstown a T-shaped plan.
In 2011 Michael Corcoran published a paper proposing an alternative narrative for Carstown. Based on evidence from other contemporaneous buildings in Ireland and England, he suggests the core of the structure could be a late-mediaeval house dating from the late 15th or early 16th century. It would have been a relatively modest gabled rectangular domestic residence but not so greatly different from what can be seen today. The main floor would already have been over a raised basement with attic space above, accessed as now through a door approximately two-thirds along the front towards the eastern end. ‘It is uncertain whether the original entrance would have been elevated, accessed by a staircase for which the current one is a replacement. It is quite possible that the original entrance was at ground-level, possibly through the opening beneath the current stairs. The building would have been heated by at least three ﬁreplaces, one at each gable end and another – the largest – along the back wall of the house, possibly serving a great hall.’ Thus, Corcoran submits, Carstown most likely underwent a remodelling around 1612, with the two stones carrying this date being inserted to mark that occasion, as well perhaps as the marriage of Oliver Plunkett and Katherine Hussey. Jacobean taste would have led to the insertion of larger windows and perhaps the gabled dormers were added at the same time, both to increase light and to provide additional living space. ‘It is at this point, also, that we see probably the earliest appearance of brick at the site, which was used in carefully selected places such as at the tops of the chimneys and in a thin course beneath the eaves of the roof. It is likely that the building remained in this form up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which there were successive periods of remodelling and extending.’
If Michael Corcoran’s hypothesis about Carstown’s origins holds up under further investigation, then as he writes, ‘it would not only make this rural dwelling unique within the north Pale region, but would place it within a site-type that is vastly under represented in the Irish countryside and under-appreciated in Irish academia.’ The likelihood of that further investigation taking place grows slimmer by the day because Carstown is now in perilous condition. The house was occupied until relatively recently (the photograph top was taken in the 1940s) and it still has electricity; there is even a television aerial on the roof indicating occupancy in the not-too distant past. But as always in our damp climate, lack of constant residency rapidly takes its toll on a building, not least because it then becomes vulnerable to vandalism. This clearly happened at Carstown, so the present owners took the step of blocking up all openings with cement blocks, although limited access to the interior is still possible. Limited because it is no longer safe to venture above the basement and therefore impossible to know the condition of 18th century joinery and plasterwork still in place less than twenty years ago, not to mention the great chimneypiece with its keystone carrying the date 1612. At some point in the past six months lead was stripped from the roof, along with a set of gates beyond the yard, probably by metal thieves. This has exacerbated the house’s decline as large numbers of slates have come free, leaving the floors below exposed to the elements. Time is running out for Carstown, a house that in other jurisdictions would be cherished for its rarity. Unless intervention occurs within the coming year the building is likely to slip into irreversible decline. All those who could and should play a part to ensure its survival, not least the owners and the local authority, need to understand that by failing to act now they are not only diminishing the nation’s architectural heritage but depriving future generations of better understanding our complex history. Take a good look at that date stone: it could soon be replaced by another marking the demise of Carstown.