The base of a window and its curtain in the Gothic Saloon at Birr Castle, County Offaly. Lit by three arches offering views down to the river Camcor and a vaulted ceiling supported by slender shafts, this wonderful room dates from the early 19th century when it was created by the second Earl of Rosse assisted by an otherwise almost unknown architect called John Johnston who, according to Mark Girouard (writing in Country Life, March 1965) did ‘little more than make working drawings based on the sketches of his employer.’
Anyone who has read Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes will remember the author’s evocation of Les Sablonnières, ancient home of the de Galais family which has seen better days. It is here that the novel’s eponymous hero, having disappeared from school, comes across a magical costume party and falls in love as much with the place as with the girl he meets on that occasion. Thereafter both he and the narrator are driven by a desire to recapture a lost moment and as a result are repeatedly driven to return to Les Sablonnières.
Milltown Park, County Offaly is like an Irish version of Alain-Fournier’s fictional house. Hidden from sight on all nearby roads, unknown even by many of the local residents and only discovered at the end of a long, verdant drive, it seems to seep memories and to be haunted by the past. Replete with echoes and reverberations, it is a sleeping beauty of a building, deep in dreams of what once took place within its walls and waiting for someone to come along and stir it into life again.
In a blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720 but the accompanying initials W.S. suggest this was added long after the house was finished, since at the time of its original construction the estate was owned by the Spunner family: they only became White-Spunners in the 19th century after the son of Benjamin White and Elizabeth Spunner changed his name from Thomas Spunner White to Thomas Spunner White-Spunner on inheriting Milltown. Behind and to the north of the house is a large model farm courtyard built in 1840 so perhaps the initials and date on the front of the property were added at the same time.
In fact, Milltown is only slightly later in origin. The lands on which it stands appear to have been in the ownership of the Spunners since the 1500s and the ruins of an earlier residence remain. By the 18th century, with circumstances in the country more settled than had previously been the case and the economy accordingly more buoyant, the Spunners must have decided to embark on erecting a more fashionable home for themselves.
‘From time to time, the wind, laden with a mist that is almost rain, dampens our faces and brings us the faint sound of a piano which someone is playing in the closed house. At first is it like a trembling voice, far, far away, scarcely daring to express its happiness. It’s like the laughter of a little girl in her room who has gone to fetch all her toys and is displaying them to a friend. I am reminded, too, of the still timorous joy of a woman who has left to put on a lovely dress and returns to show it off without being sure of the effect it will have...This unknown tune is also a prayer, an entreaty to happiness not to be too cruel, like a greeting and a genuflection to happiness...’
From Le Grand Meaulnes
In Maurice Craig’s wonderful (and wonderfully named) 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, although Milltown Park does not feature many of its architectural elements are discussed. So, for example, when considering the elevation of these buildings, he writes of the widespread use of a tripartite opening, commenting ‘I prefer this term rather than “Venetian window” because it covers a number of pseudo-Palladian features which, though inter-related, can be distinguished from one another. It should be borne in mind that a round-headed door flanked by side-lights [as found at Milltown Park] is first cousin to a “Venetian” window. Such a door occurs in Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, where the sidelights are separated from the door by piers of walling...’
From grand Seaton Delaval in Northumberland to modest Milltown Park in Offaly in twenty-odd years is quite a journey, but the latter house shows how taste could travel and fashions be adopted by other architects such as Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (whose father, after all, was a first cousin of Vanbrugh). Note how the same tripartite design is used on both the ground floor (for the smart Gibbsian doorway) and that above but slightly bungled because, as indicated by the photograph below of the landing, the ceiling was too low to accommodate the full height of the central window. Thus its upper section is blind. Another indication of Milltown Park’s ‘country cousin’ status are the blunt gable-ends with oversized chimney stacks. The house shares characteristics with two others in neighbouring County Laois, Summergrove and Roundwood: all have five-bay limestone facades with a central breakfront featuring tripartite windows on the ground and first floor and a pediment above. They represent, as Maurice Craig notes, ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion: a shade unsophisticated but with great charm.’
The interior of Milltown Park displays the same mixture of sophistication and naïveté, a broad awareness of current trends without a full understanding of how best to implement them. The design of some rooms clearly received more attention than did others. The entrance hall with its lovely flagged floor concludes in a screen that might have been inspired by Brunelleschi. And the front section has a ceiling decorated with pretty rococo plasterwork, generic in style but no less charming for that.
This is the only room with such ornamentation, although the drawing room has a good marble chimney piece and the morning room a fine neo-classical cornice frieze. But it is the handsome sturdiness of Milltown Park that most appeals, embodied by the broad first floor landing with its wide oak boards and views over the surrounding parkland. This was never an especially grand house, inspired more by aspiration than pretension, and embellished only as and when funds permitted. Hence its endurance for almost three centuries. Now, for the first time since being constructed, it is to be sold: a potentially hazardous moment in its history. Milltown waits to be awoken from its current slumber but whoever undertakes this task should have the sensitivity not to despoil the house’s special character. The place is vulnerable and requires - and deserves - special care. Wanted: one country gentleman prepared to share a property with a host of memories and happy to permit the ghosts of its past wander free.
Anne, Countess of Rosse (1902-1992) was one of the best looking and most stylish women of her generation. Birr Castle, County Offaly is full of mementoes of her tenure as chatelelaine including this chalk portrait which hangs above a mahogany chest on the return of the main staircase. Proposing her as an 18th century beauty, the artist was Anne Rosse’s brother, Oliver Messel (1904-1978). Originally renowned as a stage designer, in later years he achieved fame for the houses he created in the Caribbean.
Birr, County Offaly is one of Ireland’s most perfectly planned towns. From 1817 onwards St John’s Mall was developed in an easterly direction by local landlord, the second Earl of Rosse. In 1833 at mid-point between two terraces of houses on the mall he built this impeccably simple, single-storey limestone Ionic-porticoed temple to commemorate his second son, the Hon John Clere Parsons, who had died five years earlier of scarlet fever just days before his 26th birthday. Since then John’s Hall, as it is called, has served a variety of purposes but almost 180 years after construction the building now stands empty awaiting a new use.