Mount Hanover, County Meath is believed to date from the start of the 18th century: its name suggests some time around the accession of George I in 1714. Of three storeys over basement, this tall and slender house has a handsome but relatively modest appearance until one steps into the dining room where the ceiling displays an unexpected riot of rococo plasterwork. Scrolls and curlicues abound and in the area occupied by a canted bay are clusters of flowers and fruit, and swooping birds. Although stylistically it shows a lighter touch, given the house’s location not many miles from Drogheda, might this be another example of the handiwork of the stuccodore of St Peter’s, or at least of someone working with him?
It has long been commented that Mountainstown, County Meath is mis-named since its location in the midst of flat countryside is near neither a mountain nor a town. One ill-tempered Englishwoman in the 1840s wrote ‘At the beginning of this month we came to a place called Mountainstown, which name it must have been received from the inveterately stupid and perverse disposition of the Natives, because the place is situated in a low and flat Country, and there is not a Mountain to be seen within the Horizon.’ In fact the denomination most likely derives from an Anglicisation of the Irish for ‘Beside a Bog.’ It has borne the name for hundreds of years since the house here, soon due to celebrate the tercentenary of its construction, has always been known as Mountainstown. It is believed to have erected around 1720 for Richard Gibbons whose father Samuel acquired the estate in the late 17th century: in the same year he made a visitation of his diocses, Bishop Anthony Dopping of Meath recorded ‘Mr Gibbons and his wife came here in xmas 1693.’ Mr Gibbons’ son Richard is likewise recorded as being at Mountainstown in Faulkiner’s Dublin Journal in 1745, by which time the house would have been well finished.
The oldest part of Mountainstown is a stocky rectangular block with six bay front, of two main storeys with dormer attic above and basement below. Kevin Mulligan has described the building as occupying ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion’ and like others employed the terms bucolic and naive when speaking of its design. Mountainstown’s facade is its most immediately striking feature, a determined effort on the part of Richard Gibbons to display awareness of current architectural trends even if these were employed in a somewhat unsophisticated manner. Four slender Ionic pilasters ascend to the top of the building but without the intervention of an entablature and frieze; instead they meet the roofline via a narrow moulded cornice. The two central pilasters support a pediment but again appear too slight for the task. The raised entrance is reached by flights of stone steps with iron work railings on either side, the Venetian doorcase once more being flanked by pairs of pilasters with sidelights above which sit half-urns while over the door itself is a stone cartouche featuring the arms of the Pollocks, the family that followed the Gibbonses at Mountainstown. The latter remained in possession of the estate until 1796 when it was sold to the John Pollock who had already been renting for some time.
The history of Mountainstown’s next owners represents a familiar trajectory from merchant class to gentry, a route to which many families formerly aspired. The first John Pollock moved from Scotland to Ireland in 1732 and settled in Newry where he became involved in the burgeoning linen trade. His son continued in the same business and was commemorated by a tombstone in St Mary’s, Newry declaring he and his wife Elizabeth had been ‘parents of eleven children all of whom they lived to see established in the world.’ One of those children, another John, became a successful solicitor in Dublin and was appointed Transscriptor of the Court of the Exchequer. He also acted as agent for the Hills, Marquesses of Downshire, among the country’s largest landowners: at one time they had 115,000 acres, mostly but not exclusively in County Down. Hence being their agent was a profitable occupation and allowed John Pollock first to rent and then to buy Mountainstown although he retained a townhouse in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square so that his business could continue. Married to the daughter of a London banker, around 1811 he extended Mountainstown by adding a two-storey wing to the south-west of the older building. The ground floor of this new section contains a large drawing room with canted bay window and beyond it an equally substantial dining room. To the immediate right of the facade is a long kitchen wing and behind this lies a very substantial stable yard added by the next generation.
Mountainstown is thus of two periods and two parts, each complementing the other. While the later portion of the house is relatively plain and very much in the Regency taste with deep tripartite windows, high ceilings and understated plasterwork, the earlier reflects the more ostentatious taste of the period in which it was built. The entrance hall, stairs and first floor landing retain their original decoration, moulded plaster panels with lugged heads forming tabernacle frames beneath a dentil cornice. The handsome stairs are wide and shallow, Doric balusters supporting the handrail and the side of each tread adorned with carved curls of foliage. As with the facade, this decoration represents the original builder’s interest in showing he was au courant with the latest fashions. The most unexpected feature can be found almost immediately inside the front door: what looks to be a death mask set into the ceiling. It is commonly believed that the man shown is Samuel Gibbons, perhaps placed here as an act of filial piety on the part of his son Richard. The rooms in the front portion of the house are noticeably smaller than those added in the 19th century, and some have angled corner chimneypieces: a marble panel on that in the former morning room featuring a knight in armour.
In the mid-1820s Mountainstown was inherited by Arthur Hill Cornwallis Pollock, named after his father’s patron, Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire. Almost twenty years before he had been sent on a tour of Europe by his parents, presumably keen that their heir have the upbringing of a gentleman. Having visited France and Italy, he travelled as far as Russia, spending time at the Imperial court in St Petersburg with his friends Lords Royston and Somerton, before finally returning home in the second half of 1807. Four years later he married a cousin and devoted the rest of his life to agriculture and country pursuits. It was Arthur who created the spacious yard immediately to the north of the main house as he often won medals for his animals at agricultural shows. The Pollocks were always keen on hunting and Arthur had his own pack of hounds at Mountainstown as did many of his neighbours: eventually these were amalgamated into the Clonghill Hunt which later became the Meath. And so it has gone on until now, when the present generation has decided the moment is right to pass Mountainstown on to another family, perhaps one that will remain in the house for as long as have the Pollocks. It is always sad to see an historic property come on the market, especially in Ireland where relatively few families have stayed in the same place for so long. However, one should remember the words of Disraeli who in 1867 observed, ‘Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant.’ Whatever one’s personal feelings, the proposed departure of the Pollocks from Mountainstown, like that of the Gibbonses before them, is a reflection of that necessary change.
Trim, County Meath can be described as an urban might-have-been. Site of the largest Norman Castle in Ireland, it is also the location for a Church of Ireland cathedral and almost became a university town in the 16th century. However aside from the castle which still dominates the skyline, little enough of Trim’s former aspirations are evident today. Instead over recent decades the place has often displayed a resolutely disinterested attitude towards its distinguished past, despite ample signs advising visitors that this is a heritage town.
The name Trim derives from the Irish ‘Baile Átha Troim’, meaning ‘town at the ford of the alder trees’, since it is located on the banks of the river Boyne. Originally a monastery was founded here – the peripatetic St Patrick is inevitably said to have been involved – and in the 12th century it was refounded as St Mary’s Abbey under the Augustinian order. A wooden statue of the Virgin reputed to work miracles made the abbey a site of pilgrimage, at least until the Reformation when the statue was burnt and the abbey dissolved. Several other religious orders had a presence in the vicinity of the town. The Franciscan Grey Friary, established in the early 14th century and dedicated to St Bonaventure, stood on the site of the present courthouse; following the dissolution of the monasteries, its buildings were destroyed and the church turned into a tholsel. A Dominican friary was also established in 1263 by Geoffrey de Genneville who had married the heiress Maud de Lacy, fought in the Eighth Crusade and served as Marshall of England. At the end of his life, he entered the friary he had founded in Trim and died there in 1314. Close by also were the abbey church or Cathedral of Newtown Trim as well as the Hospital Priory of St John the Baptist. These religious settlements were a reflection of Trim’s importance after this part of the country had been granted by Henry II to Hugh de Lacy in 1172 in return for the service of fifty knights. On a raised site overlooking a fording point on the Boyne de Lacy built a motte and bailey with double palisade and external ditch, although these defences were insufficient to stop the structure being subsequently attacked and burnt the following year by Rory O’Connor, High King of Ireland.
Trim Castle stands in the midst of a three-acre site surrounded by a curtain wall with a series of semi-circular towers along the south and east sides. Soon after O’Connor’s attack it was rebuilt and presumably reinforced so that as better to withstand future assault. Work is believed to have been completed around the end of the second decade of the 13th century. Local limestone is the predominant material and, as has been noted, with little superfluous ornament the overriding effect is one of massive strength. While the river flows past the north and east sides, a ditch was cut on the other two so that water from the Boyne would cut off the castle and limit access except via a drawbridge. The Town Gate, for example, through which most visitors enter the complex, is today approached by a ramped roadway but formerly would have been reached across a drawbridge. It is one of two access points, the other being the Barbican Gate which by its design was intended to force opponents into a confined passageway where they could be more easily defeated. Within the walls rises the great three-storey castle, a square with similar corner turrets plus four-storey towers projecting in the middle of each side (that on the north long-since demolished). Different reasons have been advanced for this variant on the Greek cross design, among them that it was the best solution to a need for many rooms or that the complex architecture was intended to make a statement of authority. Whatever the reason, it continues to create a powerful impact on anyone approaching, especially since some of the other buildings in the complex, such as the great hall that once ran along the north defensive wall, are now gone. By the 17th century the castle seems no longer to have been much in use; in fact from around the mid-14th century onwards it ceased to be permanently occupied. In the following century, during which the building reverted to the crown, the Irish parliament met there on several occasions and a mint operated within the grounds. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, it was granted to the Wellesleys who retained ownership until the first Duke of Wellington sold Trim Castle to the Leslies. It then passed to the Plunketts of Dunsany and remained in their possession until sold to the state in 1993: after a programme of restoration it has been open to the public since 2000.
Trim it is claimed contains more mediaeval buildings than any other town in Ireland. Certainly there are ample remnants of its past to be seen, not least what is known as the Yellow Steeple, so called because of the hue it takes when hit by sunlight at dawn and dusk. Situated across the Boyne from Trim Castle, this is the seven-storey east wall of the steeple of St Mary’s church, part of the former Augustinian establishment that housed the supposedly-miraculous statue of the Virgin. To the south-west, and directly above the river stands the so-called Talbot’s Castle, its name deriving from a belief that Sir John Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for several years from 1414 was responsible for the building’s construction soon after his arrival in this country. However more recently the suggestion has been made that the core of the building was the refectory of the Augustinian house. In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift, when he was living in the area prior to becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, advised Esther Johnson, otherwise known to posterity as ‘Stella’ that the local diocesan school had become ‘thin.’ A few years after she bought the building and either sold or gave it to Swift, after which it became the home of the Diocesan School and remained such until the 19th century. It has since served as a private residence. Elsewhere on the southern side of the Boyne are such historic structures as the vast rusticated limestone screen wall of the former gaol designed by John Hargrave in 1827, a fitting match for the castle immediately north, although the two are separated by a singularly modest police station. Then there is the Wellington Monument of 1817, a Corinthian column on top of which stands a statue of the Iron Duke whose former family estate, Dangan Castle, lies a few miles south of the town.
In 1584 when Trim was being suggested as the site for Ireland’s first university, the local rector Robert Draper advised that the town was ‘full of very faire castles and stone houses builded after the English fashion and devyded into five faire streetes.’ Aside from the great castle, the others of that name have gone and so too have most of the old stone houses. And, a problem by no means unique to Trim, much of what survives has suffered from a shaming want of due care. Directly to the south of the castle and facing its walls, for example, is a terrace of ten early 19th century cottages with decorated bargeboards and canopied porches, and mullioned windows. Several of these are visibly decaying, with panes of glass broken and vegetation sprouting in the gutters: hardly a good advertisement for a heritage town. Nor is the adjacent hotel built a decade ago after much controversy and the production of an independent report criticised a government minister for ignoring objections to the development from the relevant officials in his own department. Not only is the resultant building ill-considered for its location but also poorly designed and demonstrating little awareness of this most sensitive location. On the other hand, such insensitivity is widespread in Trim. At the top of Market Street stands a substantial mid-18th century five-bay, three-storey market house with first floor Venetian window and Diocletian window above. All have suffered from the insertion of uPVC (like so many other buildings throughout the town) while the ground floor is defaced with crassly-executed contemporary shop fronts. Richard Morrison’s nearby Courthouse of 1810 similarly is afflicted by a recent development to one side that shows no respect for the context or for Trim’s history. Elsewhere old buildings, and even new ones, are allowed to remain fallow, and this in an era when shortage of housing is constantly lamented. Vacant sites litter the streets and more recent additions display no regard for the original urban layout. The difficulty of securing a clear view of the Wellington Monument embodies all the place’s problems: nobody seems to have noticed what has happened to the town’s architectural heritage and moved to have matters improved. Everywhere one turns there appears to be a want of coherence or planning, and the complete absence of any vision. The outcome is that Trim fails to capitalise on its advantages as a heritage town, with obvious economic consequences. An unfinished housing estate on the edge of Trim, a victim of the recent recession, rejoices in the name Maudlin Vale: enough said.
In 1797 James Wyatt designed a hall bench for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, a set then being made for the house by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Their distinctive features such as the splayed saber legs and corresponding arms gave the benches so widespread and long-lasting an appeal that the design was subsequently copied, not least by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton which produced the example seen here at some date between 1829-42, in other words three or four decades after the original. Above it hangs Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Lady Maria Conyngham commissioned, along with those of her mother and sister, in the mid-1820s by George IV who hung the three in his bedroom in St James’ Palace, London (Lady Conyngham, it will be remembered, was his last mistress). Following the king’s death the pictures were transferred to the Conyngham family residence Slane Castle, County Meath where they remained until sold at the start of the last century. This portrait is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York while the Williams & Gibton bench belongs to the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.
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.
Scattered on the floor of the rear hall at Bloomsbury, County Meath are the remnants of plasterwork fallen from the ceiling. Originally dating from the 17th century and named Mount Tisdall after its then-owners, the front section of the house was extensively refurbished in the 1740s. Then in the late 1850s the property more than doubled thanks to Richard Barnewell. In the present century a programme of work was begun on the building and then abandoned, and in recent years Bloomsbury has ignominiously slithered into decay. Given that in the Christian calendar today is Ash Wednesday, it seems an apposite image.
More on this house in the weeks to come.
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.