On the Town X

Mountmellick, County Laois is typical of many Irish towns in possessing a more distinguished past than its present circumstances would suggest. Originally a 15th century settlement beside the Owenass river, it underwent expansion after the second half of the 17th century when a number of Quakers arrived in the area. In 1659 the founder of the Society of Friends in this country, a former soldier called William Edmundson came to live close to Mountmellick, soon followed by several other members of the same faith. As a result of their presence and their industry, the town flourished and expanded as a centre for diverse industries so that in the 18th century it came to be known as the ‘Manchester of Ireland.’ In the years prior to the Great Famine of the 1840s, Mountmellick’s population grew to more than 4,500 the majority of them working in tanning and textile businesses run by such Quaker families as the Goodbodys and Pims. At the start of the 19th century there were three large mills and five breweries in the town, and employment provided by these supported the local population. In the mid-1820s a lace-making cottage industry was also initiated in Mountmellick and enjoyed similar success. Needlework was already being taught to girls attending the Quaker school in the town. This had opened in the centre of Mountmellick in 1786 and provided education for both sexes, albeit with different curricula. A government report of 1858 declared the institution ‘deserved the utmost praise and was the most credible managed school of its kind in Ireland.’ Before the end of the 19th century however, boys were being sent instead to Newtown, County Waterford and in 1921 the girls school was sold to the Roman Catholic Presentation Order of nuns.

Like most of the Quaker families which first brought them into existence, the industries encouraging Mountmellick’s original growth have long since disappeared. Yet evidence of the town’s former prosperity can be found in abundance, not least in the central O’Connell Square, formerly known as Drogheda Square after the Moore family, Earls of Drogheda who owned land in the area. This is lined with large houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and testifies to Mountmellick’s commercial success. So too do many other buildings discovered on surrounding streets, such as the courthouse dating from 1839, a former town hall (now used as a parish hall) of some thirty years later and a Masonic Hall. The different religious denominations once found in the town are all recorded through their diverse properties including a Church of Ireland church which in its present form was built in 1828 to replace an earlier structure. In addition to the large Roman Catholic church, there is also a Methodist chapel, a former Presbyterian church (today a guest hostel), and naturally a large Quaker Meeting House. This however, has long since ceased to be used for its original purpose and is now a Church of Ireland Youth Hall. But the importance of the Quakers to Mountmellick’s development has not been forgotten, with a festival to their memory being held in the town last July. The local community clearly recognizes the benefits of living with such a distinguished history: preserving and celebrating its heritage surely represents one of Mountmellick’s best chances of enjoying a buoyant future. It is unlikely the industries of old will ever return and the town risks becoming a backwater while larger centres of population in the region like Portlaoise expand. Much of the old town remains – albeit in places falling into disrepair – and this ought to be promoted as a prime tourist destination for the Midland region. Compared with many other similar towns around the country Mountmellick is doing well but it has the potential to do even better.


Apologies for this somewhat truncated On the Town: the Irish Aesthete has been on the road in the USA for the past week. Normal postings resume hereafter…

Puzzled at the Door

Seen on Wolfe Tone Street in Mountmellick, County Laois: this cut limestone doorcase. From the 1650s onwards many Quakers settled in the town and in the 18th century developed it into a successful centre for textile production, which is why so many handsome houses from the period remain. However these buildings tend to be closer to the centre whereas Wolfe Tone Street is on the outskirts of Mountmellick and none of the other houses in the vicinity have anything as fine as this doorcase. Might it have come from another property – perhaps a country house – and been inserted into the present façade?

Off the Cuffe

The remnants of Castlecuffe, County Laois its height exaggerated by distinctive Jacobean chimney stacks. The house was built in the early years of the 17th century by Sir Charles Coote, perhaps around 1610 to mark his marriage to Dorothea Cuffe from whom the property takes its name. The land on which Castlecuffe stands had previously belonged to the O’Dunnes and in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s it came under attack and was so badly damaged as to be rendered uninhabitable. The Cootes, on the other hand, thrived and diverse branches of the family established their presence around the country, as can still be seen in the fine houses still extant at Ballyfin, County Laois and Bellamont Forest, County Cavan.


Garden Guardians


Two pieces of statuary in the grounds of Ballyfin, County Laois. To the rear of the main block and flanked by obelisks, the figure of a river god reclines in a basin. The cascade behind him concludes in a Doric temple. Meanwhile in front of the house a pair of crouching sphinxes observe the arrival and departure of guests.

For more about Ballyfin, see The Fair Place, July 21st 2014.

When Salvation is at Hand





The debt which Ireland owes to members of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers, is insufficiently appreciated. Although always relatively small in number, members of their faith were often outstandingly industrious and possessed of exceptional foresight. One of the most notable among them was Anthony Sharp, born in Gloucestershire in 1643 before moving to this country in 1669 to escape religious persecution in England. He settled in Dublin where he became involved in the wool trade and quickly gained success: by 1680 he employed some 500 workers and eight years later the Weavers’ Guild elected him Master; he also became an Alderman of Dublin. As well as allowing him to acquire extensive property in the capital, Sharp’s business acumen provided him with the necessary funds to buy land elsewhere in Ireland, notably in what was then known as Queen’s County, now Laois. Around 1685 he purchased from Thomas Sharkey of Abbeyleix some 1,700 acres in Killinure based around a small dwelling house. Using the land to graze sheep and thus produce more wool, Sharp established a small community in Killinure which came to have the informal name Friends Town and it appears there were other buildings in the vicinity including mills. Even before buying the estate in Ireland Anthony Sharp had been one of the original shareholders in the purchase of West New Jersey in 1677 (in which William Penn, who had converted to Quakerism while in Ireland, was also involved). Likewise, when East New Jersey was bought by the Quakers in 1682 Sharp was an investor.  While he remained in Ireland, in late 1700 his eldest son Isaac Sharp moved to America where he settled in Salem County, New Jersey, naming the district Blessington after the County Wicklow town (the area in New Jersey is now known as Sharpstown).

Anthony Sharp died in 1707 and was buried in Dublin. The bulk of his property was bequeathed to his son Isaac who at the time was still living in Salem County where he served as a judge and a colonel of the local militia; he would also be a member of the New Jersey General Assembly from 1709-21. In 1714 he married a local woman, Margaret Braithwaite, with whom he had six children. Thus although being the principal beneficiary of his father’s estate, he remained in America and only returned to Ireland around 1726, together with his eldest son Anthony. The latter thus inherited the Killinure property on his own father’s death in 1735 (he conveyed the East New Jersey lands to his younger brothers five years later). Anthony Sharp remained on the Killinure estate, now called Roundwood, until his death in 1781; he had two children, a boy and a girl but the former Isaac Sharp died while still a minor and the estate passed to the son of Anthony Sharp’s daughter Frances’ son, one Robert Anthony Flood who in accordance with the terms of his grandfather’s will assumed the surname Sharp. Soon after the family’s decline began, Robert Sharp taking out a mortgage in 1784, a year after his marriage to Mary Horan of Dublin, on all his properties in the capital. He died in 1803 leaving a one year-old heir William Flood Sharp under whom the deterioration of finances accelerated to such an extent that in 1835 the house and demesne of 1,680 acres were assigned to a Dublin attorney to cover the family’s debts. One of the witnesses to the deed of transfer was a first cousin once-removed William Hamilton of Peafield in the same county. Two years later Hamilton was shown to be in possession of Roundwood and his descendants remained there until 1968 when Major Maurice Chetwode Hamilton sold house and remaining 200 acres to the Land Commission.

The Land Commission, as was ever that body’s wont, displayed no interest in the house which was left boarded up, its condition soon deteriorating. It might have been lost altogether had the Irish Georgian Society not stepped in to buy house and surrounding fourteen acres for £6,250 in the summer of 1970. There was no water supply or electricity but thankfully the building had not been vandalised and its chimneypieces and other features were intact. Brian Molloy, one of the IGS’s most spirited members at the time moved into Roundwood and aided by a band of volunteers set about rescuing Roundwood. A diary he kept during those first months indicates just how dilapidated the house had become and how much had to be done. In an entry for July 15th 1970, he notes that a 19th century extension to the rear of the house ‘was consumed with dry rot, wet rot and decay’ (it was soon demolished) and three days later, ‘Mr Maloney the electrician is coming on Tuesday, thank God. He gave an estimate of £218, very reasonable as it includes 47 thirteen amp sockets.’ Gradually the house was refurbished and decorated at a cost of just £15,000: the drawingroom’s Victorian chimneypiece was replaced with a fine 18th century example from Bert House, County Kildare but otherwise little was added to the building. Similarly the overgrown grounds and stable yard were cleared and tidied. The house was officially opened on June 6th 1971 after which Brian Molloy lived there while overseeing the restoration of the Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary (for more on that property, see Bon Anniversaire, September 23rd 2013). Two years later it was bought from the society for £35,000 by one of the organisation’s keenest American supporters, John L Tormey of Akron, Ohio. He was happy that Brian Molloy should continue to live there as he did until his untimely death in 1978, after which John Tormey generously donated Roundwood back to the Society. It was then occupied for a time by Brian Molloy’s friend, the artist’s muse Henrietta Moraes before being leased from the IGS in 1983 by Frank and Rosemarie Kennan. Five years later they bought Roundwood from the society and today their daughter and son-in-law Hannah and Paddy Flynn live there and, like her parents, run the house as a family guesthouse.

Roundwood has often and rightly been described as having the appearance and character of a doll’s house and is certainly one of the prettiest such properties remaining in Ireland. The building must date from before 1741 which is when the name Roundwood first appears in registered deeds instead of Killinure. One can therefore presume it was built by Anthony Sharp shortly after he came into his inheritance in 1735. The main elevation is of five bays and three storeys with a break front, the central projecting bay crowned with a pediment. There is only a part-basement and unusually the kitchen has always been on the ground floor behind the dining room. The entrance doorcase is Gibbsian, flanked on both sides by narrow windows and composed of limestone, unlike the rest of the facade which is of sandstone with side and back being rendered. The design of the house has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon but what might be described as the clumsiness of certain elements make this unlikely. It has been noted, for example, how the detailing of the first floor Venetian window lacks sophistication and its coursing differs from that of the quoins. As Maurice Craig wrote in 1976, ‘I prefer to believe it was just put together by somebody: master-builder or even owner.’ One suspects this was often the case in 18th century provincial Ireland.
The greater part of the interior remains unaltered, the rooms still with their carved timber architraves to window openings, lugged doorcases and panelled wainscotting, as well as some primitive rococo plasterwork in the former study. All the chimney pieces remain except, as already mentioned, that in the drawing room which came from Bert, County Kildare, a house of similar date. But the great delight of Roundwood is its double-height entrance hall with a bow-fronted first-floor gallery once described as swelling out like a pair of opera boxes, their balustrades made of distinctive Chinoiserie fretwork. No matter how many times one visits Roundwood, the sight of its entrance hall lifts the spirits up and beyond the ceiling’s stucco foliate centrepiece. Forty-five years ago the future of this house looked decidedly uncertain and many others of its ilk were lost then and in the intervening years. Thankfully in this instance salvation was at hand in the nick of time. Roundwood has survived and now serves as an wonderful example of how such properties can be both a family home and financially viable.


Elevation and sectional drawings by architect John O’Connell.
Roundwood welcomes guests. For more information, see: http://www.roundwoodhouse.com

A Man of Acton


Over the chimney piece in the dining room at Ballyfin, County Laois, an oil of Mary Anne, Lady Acton and her children painted in 1809 by the neo-classical artist Robert Fagan. Lady Acton’s husband, Sir John Acton, commander of the naval forces of Grand Duchy of Tuscany and prime minister of Naples in the late 18th century, was also her uncle: the couple had been permitted to marry by papal dispensation. The boy holding a bird to the right was their younger son, Charles Januarius Acton who, after being educated in England, returned to Italy where he became a priest. In 1837 Pope Gregory XVI made him Auditor to the Apostolic Chamber and two years later he became a cardinal. However, never very strong, he died in 1847 at the age of forty-four. Incidentally his nephew was the historian Lord Acton, best remembered for the observation, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’ This was certainly not true of Cardinal Acton.

The Fair Place


The name Ballyfin derives from the Irish An Baile Fionn, meaning the fair place, and it’s an apt description for the house and estate in County Laois which now bear that name. Originally this part of the country was under the control of the O’More clan, but like so many others they were displaced of their lands during the settlement period in the 16th century. Laois was one of two counties created by Queen Mary in 1556 when it was called Queen’s County (and its main town, now Portlaoise, was Maryborough) and by the early decades of the following century Ballyfin had passed into the control of Sir Piers Crosby who is said to have built a castle here. In the disturbances of the 1640s, however, Crosby lost this territory when it came into the ownership of one Periam Pole, younger son of the Devonshire antiquarian Sir William Pole. In turn his son, likewise called Periam, would be confirmed as being in possession of the land, part of a larger estate of some 3,500 acres.
His son William Pole succeeded him in 1704 and some time later pulled down the old Crosby castle, replacing it with a more commodious house, these changes being described by a nephew as ‘grand and expensive and his designs were elegant, as his gardens show.’ But the expenditure meant that by 1727, the same relation would comment that William Pole ‘died worth no ready money between his improving Ballyfin and his wife’s going constantly every winter to Dublin.’ His elder son, another Periam – who undertook restoration on the house following a fire – died childless in 1748 and so the estate went to his sibling, another William Pole. The latter and his wife Lady Sarah Moore, a daughter of the fifth Earl of Drogheda, greatly developed Ballyfin’s parkland: in May 1759 Emily, Countess of Kildare could write to her husband, ‘Yesterday I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin…There is a piece of water there very like what I fancy ours will be, only broader; fine plantations and the greatest variety of trees and flowers almost that I ever saw anywhere.’ Over 250 years later Lady Kildare’s description remains apt.





In addition to the grounds, William and Lady Sarah Pole also carried out work on the house built by his father, including ‘an elegant and commodious square of offices’ and, in 1778, an extension to the building that provided a new entrance hall and series of reception rooms. In 1784 William Ashford painted a number of views of Ballyfin which provide us with an idea of its appearance at the time; one of these pictures was engraved by Thomas Milton and published in 1787 in his Views of Seats in Ireland. The house is shown across the lake created by the Poles, a fourteen-bay elevation conforming to Milton’s description of it as ‘plain and modern-built’, the result being ‘an excellent family mansion’ with rooms ‘large and commodious, fitted up with taste’. Another engraving of the same building in 1794 shows its uneven façade and provides confirmation that the owners were planning still further developments. On the other hand, as was so often the case in Ireland, ambition outstripped income and it is apparent the Poles were heavily indebted by the time of their deaths in 1780 and 1781 respectively. Still, they were determined the improvements they had undertaken should not be dissipated, William Pole declaring in his will that ‘the person for the time being who shall enjoy my mansion house and demesne of Ballyfin shall engage and employ a skilful gardiner at the salary of one hundred pounds Sterling a year to attend and take care of the improvements…so as to keep and preserve the same in good and compleat order, repair and condition.’





Like his elder brother William Pole had no children, and therefore Ballyfin passed to a godson and great-nephew, William Wellesley, whose father was the music-loving first Earl of Mornington and whose younger brother would become the great Duke of Wellington. Wellesley’s inheritance came with the proviso that he adopt the name Pole, and so he became William Wellesley-Pole. Although he spent time in this country as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1809 and 1812 and as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer during part of the same period, Wellesley-Pole, who would be made first Baron Maryborough in 1821 (and on the death of another brother in 1842 become third Earl of Mornington), spent the greater part of his career in England. In 1813 he offered his Irish estate for sale, a fortunate move since it would otherwise have been squandered by his eldest son.
This gentleman was one of the most notorious rakes of the early 19th century. Born William Wellesley-Pole, in 1812 shortly before marrying for the first time he added the surname of his heiress fiancée, thus becoming William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. The unfortunate bride, Catherine Tylney-Long, at the time generally called ‘The Wiltshire Heiress’ was believed to be the richest commoner in England, with estates providing an annual rental income of £40,000 per annum and financial investments worth £300,000. Her husband, on the other hand, had only debts and within a decade was forced to flee to mainland Europe to evade his creditors. His last years were spent in London, living on a weekly pension of ₤10 provided by his cousin Arthur Wellesley, second Duke of Wellington. On his death in July 1857, the Morning Chronicle obituarist summarised him as follows: ‘A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance.’





Instead of being frittered away by William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the Ballyfin estate changed hands in 1813 when it was bought by Sir Charles Henry Coote, premier Baronet of Ireland. The first of his family to come to Ireland had been an earlier Charles Coote, like Periam Pole originally from Devonshire. As a young soldier he came to this country to make his fortune and was eventually rewarded with large grants of land as well as a lifetime possession of several valuable state offices. He died in 1642 during the Confederate Wars and was succeeded by his son Charles who supported Oliver Cromwell but, after the latter’s death, championed the restoration of Charles II and was thus granted the title of Earl of Mountrath. This title passed down through successive generations until the death in 1802 of the childless seventh earl who left his Mountrath estate of some 50,000 acres to a kinsman, Charles Henry Coote, then a ten-year old schoolboy. The property was held in trust until he came of age, conveniently just as Ballyfin was offered for sale and a year before his marriage to Caroline Whaley (a niece of the famous Irish gambler Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley).
Although the Cootes had been considerable landowners in Queen’s County since the early 17th century, they do not appear to have had a significant residence there. The ruins survive of two houses associated with the family, Castle Cuffe, built by the first Sir Charles Coote and named after his wife Dorothea Cuffe, and Rush Hall, but neither was in use by the time the ninth baronet came into his inheritance. Therefore it made sense to acquire an existing estate, especially one such as Ballyfin which had benefitted from the attention of successive earlier owners. He and his new wife settled here and when the place was visited by Atkinson in 1815, he reported in The Irish Tourist, ‘The dwelling-house of Ballyfin is a large building in the form of a half-square, it has an aspect of neatness and extent, but in its exterior appearance nothing very ornamental or magnificent. The rooms, however, which I saw, were spacious and furnished in a stile of elegance suitable to the place. Under this head may be classed, as an article of the first consideration, a rich and valuable collection of paintings, the work of eminent artists.’





It was perhaps because they required a better setting for their collection of ‘rich and valuable’ paintings that in the early 1820s the Cootes decided to embark on a rebuilding programme at Ballyfin. It would appear that the initial intention was to remodel and extend the existing structure, using the services of a relatively unknown architect called Dominick Madden (he would go on to design several Roman Catholic cathedrals in the west of Ireland). However, here as elsewhere Madden ran into trouble with his clients – in 1810 he had been dismissed from a position with the Board of Works for ‘irregular conduct’ including the theft of furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge – and was replaced by the ubiquitous Morrisons, Richard and his son William Vitruvius. They proposed an entirely new scheme that even involved the demolition of Madden’s recently completed library and vestibule, and somehow succeeded in persuading Sir Charles Coote to go along with their plans.
As Kevin V Mulligan wrote in a 2005 article on the house, ‘The detail and quality of finishes in the executed building, indicate that the Morrisons’ skills in spatial planning and decorative design were matched only by their powers of persuasion. The wealth of materials available to the Morrisons is seen in the ability to execute all the elevations in smooth sandstone ashlar. The conservatory, a feature represented in the Morrisons’ earliest proposals, seems to have been the only element sacrificed until Richard Turner’s fragile curvilinear glass cell was added sometime after 1855. Internally, a stunning collection of scagliola columns included the most expensive that could be obtained from the Lambeth works of William Croggon who almost certainly provided them here, represented by the imitation verde antico Corinthian columns that contribute to the imperial grandeur of the saloon. Elsewhere, endless mahogany for doors and bookcases and an assorted range of exotic woods used to remarkable effect in the parquetry floors constituted more expensive materials; added to this were the contents of seven packing cases sent from Italy in 1821 through the agency of the artist Gaspare Gabrielli which may have included the matching chimneypieces with Bacchanalian friezes that now serve the saloon and dining room or indeed the Roman mosaic set into the stone floor of the entrance hall. But all of this barely compares with the wealth of artistry available in the craftsmen who fashioned these materials, especially those who modelled and cast the extraordinary stuccowork, an eclectic decorative display that remains the principal glory of Ballyfin.’





Ballyfin remained in the ownership of the Cootes for just over 100 years before steeply declining income, the loss of the estate to the Land Commission and changing political circumstances obliged the family to sell. In 1928 the house and demesne were acquired by the Patrician Brothers for £10,000, only a fraction of what it had cost to build the Morrison-designed property a century before. The religious order operated a boarding school on the premises until they in turn announced an intention to sell in September 2001. After visiting Ballyfin the following January, I wrote that by this date some of the rooms had become ‘barely habitable, because in recent years the house has suffered from water seeping through the roof and into the building. A corner of the ground-floor drawing-room, for example, shows evidence of serious damage from this problem.’ While problems with the roof had been stabilised, ‘more costly work is still required on the parapets and corbels. Then money will need to be spent elsewhere on the building, taking care of those sections which have been ruined by damp as well as rescuing such features as the saloon’s marquetry floor, areas of which have become dislodged, and the unique glass and iron conservatory dating from the 1850s and believed to have been designed by Richard Turner…And the grounds are also suffering from a shortage of funds for their upkeep: trees need to be thinned or felled, while other sections of the woodlands should be replanted; the grottoes and follies, including a 19th-century “medieval” observation tower, are suffering; and one of the neo-classical gate lodges is almost derelict. Remarkable and deserving of support as Ballyfin may be, the question must be asked: who can or will come to its salvation?’
Amazingly, a new owner did come forward to save Ballyfin and to undertake the slow and costly programme of restoration that the house required. Work began in 2002 and continued until 2010, meticulous, methodical and almost without equal in this country. Ballyfin then reopened as an hotel, but not – as is too often the case – with its parkland despoiled and its interiors butchered. On the contrary, the sensitivity of the house’s present owners and the skills of the team they assembled to resuscitate the property means that this is one of the finest restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the past century. As a result Ballyfin today once more lives up to its name of being the fair place.


For this week’s account I am much indebted to Kevin V Mulligan’s excellent 2011 publication, Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne.
Ballyfin is now a superlatively luxurious hotel, for more information see: http://www.ballyfin.com