Reflecting on the Irish Country House


The 19th century boathouse on a stretch of the Rye Water at Carton, County Kildare, supposedly built in anticipation of a visit from Queen Victoria. Carton is among the properties I will be discussing next Saturday, October 10th when I speak on the subject of Building, contents, demesne: Understanding the Holy Trinity of the Country House. This will take place during next weekend’s Northern Ireland Heritage Gardens Committee conference, ‘Art and Architecture in Historic Garden Design’ being held at Hillsborough Castle, County Down. Further information on the event can be found on the NIHGC’s website,

Reflections of the Past

A view of White’s Castle in Athy, County Kildare originally built in 1419 by then-Viceroy of Ireland Sir John Talbot in order to protect passage across the adjacent bridge over the river Barrow. The castle then passed into the hands of the FitzGeralds, Earls of Kildare (and subsequently Dukes of Leinster) before being sold in the last century to its long-time tenants. Sold again at the height of the economic boom for some €1.3 million, three years ago it was included in an auction of distressed properties and fetched a more modest €195,000. Reports at the time indicated that the castle would be restored as a family residence but it remains in poor condition and needing remedial attention, a sad state for the most important building in this town.

A Man of Taste and Influence

Despite the many advances made in Irish architectural history over recent decades, some areas remain in need of further investigation. Among the most obvious of these is the question of attribution. There are significant houses across the country yet to be assigned to any architect, and others which need to have their accreditations reassessed. In the latter category are those properties given accreditations by the late Knight of Glin in the early 1960s when he was engaged on his uncompleted thesis on the subject of Irish Palladianism. At the time there was far less information available on or interest in architectural history than is now the case, and therefore the Knight was to a large extent dependent on instinct when allocating various houses to different architects, about whom little or nothing was known. Often he had to rely on his eye rather than on documentation, and as he admitted towards the end of his life, mistakes were made. To date insufficient effort has been made to correct these and as a result attributions made half a century ago still stand. An obvious opportunity for correction occurred with the appearance of the relevant volume in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland series published earlier this year, but the editors failed to avail of this opportunity. A reassessment of the Knight’s attributions still awaits requiring someone able to combine scholarship with connoisseurship. Until such time, in particular the output of gentlemen architects like Francis Bindon (whose name has appeared here on more than one occasion) will remain unclear. On the other hand, thanks to another book published in 2015 we are now in a much better position to assess the oeuvre of another talented 18th century amateur, Nathaniel Clements.

In 1754 John Carteret Pilkington published the third and final volume of his late mother Letitia’s celebrated memoirs in which he described Nathaniel Clements as being ‘a certain great man in Ireland, whose place of abode is not remote from Phoenix Park…whose acquirements have justly raised him from obscurity to opulence [and] whose extensive plans in building have excited an universal admiration of his taste in architecture.’ As Clements’ new biographer Anthony Malcomson noted, it was perhaps something of an exaggeration to claim he had raised himself from ‘obscurity’ but as a fifth son he would have been expected to make his own way in the world, especially since his father died when he was only seventeen. That father, Robert Clements had inherited an estate in County Cavan but in 1707 had secured the important, and lucrative, post of Teller to the Irish Exchequer. This job passed to his eldest son Theophilus who badly bungled his own financial affairs as was discovered when he died in 1728. Nevertheless, both the family and Nathaniel Clements were by this time sufficiently well connected for the Tellership of the Exchequer to pass to him, a job he held for the next twenty-seven years during which time, as Pilkington commented, he made himself exceedingly rich. His substantial income was boosted by money received from non-residents in receipt of an Irish pension for whom he acted as agent for decades (Malcolmson estimates that by the mid-1740s his annual income from this job alone was £1,500). He also held numerous other offices, all of which brought in additional funds. Much of this was used to acquire land, the most reliable form of investment in a period when banks failed regularly (as did that established by Clements and a couple of partners in 1759). By the end of his life he had bought up some 85,000 acres spread across three counties and producing an income of around £6,000 each year.

Another area of investment in which Clements engaged was housing, beginning with his participation in the development of Dublin’s Henrietta Street. The man behind this project, and others on the northern banks of the Liffey, was Luke Gardiner to whom Clements was related by marriage. Named after Henrietta, Duchess of Bolton, an old friend of Gardiner, whose husband acted as Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant in 1717-20, the street was from the start intended to be the capital’s premier address, its two sides lined with houses of princely splendor. As so often the case throughout 18th century Dublin, the exterior of the buildings, mostly standard red-brick and occupying sites of varying proportions, gave – and continue to give – insufficient notice of what lay behind the facades. Clements was responsible for constructing a number of houses on the street, beginning with Number 8 which was finished around 1733 and let to Colonel (later General) Richard St George. Three or four others then followed before he moved to Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the initial development of which was likewise overseen by Gardiner. Here Clements built several more properties including a family residence that came to be known as Leitrim House. But having become ranger of the Phoenix Park in 1750 (having previously acted as deputy-ranger) he embarked on building himself a smart and substantial new villa. The Ranger’s Lodge was a five-bay, two-storey over full-height basement house on either side of which quadrants connected to L-shaped single-storey wings. Clements and his socially-ambitious wife hosted opulent parties on the premises intended to impress their contemporaries and to cement the couple’s place in Ireland’s hierarchy. In June 1760 for example, it was reported that the Clementses ‘gave an elegant entertainment to several of the nobility and gentry at his lodge in the Phoenix Park, which was illuminated in the most brilliant manner.’ Five years after Nathaniel Clements’ death in 1777, his son Robert sold the lodge to the government which then converted – and subsequently – enlarged the building for use as a Viceregal residence. Today the same property is known as Áras an Uachtaráin and occupied by the President of Ireland.

Nathaniel Clements’ engagement in speculative building, together with his reputation as an arbiter of taste, led to several buildings being attributed to him by the Knight of Glin. These included Brookelawn and Colganstown, County Dublin; Williamstown and Newberry Hall, County Kildare; and Beauparc and Belview, County Meath. All can be dated to c.1750-65, and all share certain stylistic similarities, not least reliance on Palladianism which by that date was fast falling from fashion. While respecting the Knight’s notion of Clements as an architect, and one responsible for the houses listed above, Maurice Craig in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976) proposes that he was ‘eclectic’ not least because ‘he picked and chose his elements from pattern-books and combined them so that they compose well enough together: but they do not interact on one another.’ However, given his many other professional and financial interests, it must now be accepted that Clements was not an architect as we would understand the term. Rather he was an influence, or as Malcomson proposes, ‘a role model’, someone to turn to for advice. Furthermore, the design of his Ranger’s Lodge provided the prototype for a new generation of villa-farms that were not grand country houses but residences at the centre of working estates. All this is applicable to a house which has long been ascribed to Nathaniel Clements because it was built for his eldest son and heir Robert who in 1795 was created first Earl of Leitrim. Killadoon, County Kildare, shown in the pictures here today, surely ought to have been designed by Nathaniel Clements but even Mark Bence-Jones in his 1978 Guide to Irish Country Houses argued that ‘apart from having the “pattern-book” tripartite doorway with a fanlight, a baseless pediment and engaged columns which he seems to have favoured, it lacks the characteristics of the houses known to be by him or convincingly attributed to him.’ In fact, as Malcomson shows, Nathaniel and Robert Clements had a troubled relationship and he proposes that the older man’s input into the house’s design ‘must have been limited.’ The need for a thorough re-examination of 18th century architectural attribution remains.

Nathaniel Clements, 1705-77: Politics, Fashion and Architecture in mid-Eighteenth-Century Ireland by Anthony Malcomson is published by Four Courts Press.

In Miniature

On top of a mahogany cabinet in the staircase hall at Killadoon, County Kildare stand these pieces of 18th century furniture. Perfect in execution, they are indistinguishable from other items of the same period except in size, being on a scale fit only for a doll’s house. Is that why they were made, or had they been produced by a furniture manufacturer to provide clients with an idea of what he could produce? No one seems sure although the drawing room at Killadoon contains a pair of sofas not dissimilar in design to that seen above.
More on Killadoon shortly.

Watchful at the Gate


The gate lodge at Ballindoolin, County Kildare. Curiously there does not appear to be any information available on who might have been the architect for this or indeed the main house at the end of the drive. The latter was built around 1822 for the Bor family so presumably the lodge dates from that period since the two buildings display the same neo-classical style (somewhat disturbed here by lattice windows set in the beautifully crisp limestone frames). Note behind the Tuscan columns how the recessed porch has two doors facing each other on the diagonal to left and right. The lodge suggests the hand of Francis Johnston at his most rigorous.

Emigration Once Again

Athy Mace
The Ceremonial Mace of Athy, County Kildare made in Dublin by John Wilme in 1746. This splendid example of mid-18th century Irish silversmithery was presented to the town in the year of its production by James FitzGerald, twentieth Earl of Kildare (and later first Duke of Leinster). It remained in the town until c.1840 when reform of municipal government caused the abolition of the local borough. The mace eventually returned to the Leinsters before being auctioned by Sotheby’s in March 1982 after which it crossed the Atlantic. Today it is part of what is considered the finest collection of antique Irish silver in the world, in the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas.
You can read more about this and many other Irish treasures now in the American collections in an article I have written for the March issue of Apollo magazine.

‘A Man of Gravity and Virtuous Conversation’


A pair of figures on the tomb of Walter Wellesley, penultimate Prior of Great Connell, County Kildare, a religious house belonging to the Augustinian canons. Judged a man of both exceptional learning and political wisdom, Wellesley, who became Bishop of Kildare in 1529, had sufficient influence with Henry VIII to ensure the survival of Great Connell during the following decade when other religious houses were being suppressed. When he died in 1539 this tomb was erected in his memory but the following year the priory was closed down and its occupants dispersed. The buildings subsequently passed into other hands and in the early 19th century much of the original masonry was used to construct a military barracks in Newbridge. At that time surviving fragments of Bishop Wellesley’s tomb were incoporated into the wall of a graveyard at Great Connell where they remained until 1971 when removed to St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. There they remain in the south transept although portions of the tomb have never been recovered.