The early 18th century entrance to Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath, an exceptionally tall and narrow door with segmental pediment above, added one suspects to indicate the owners were aware of classical architecture. Incorporating an older structure, this section of the castle is of two storeys and of a seven-bays, the three advanced centre bays rising to an attic which features the family coat of arms (dated 1617 and presumably therefore taken from its predecessor). Like the door, the windows are taller than usual, that on the floor immediately above the door having a round top. A late 18th century extension to the immediate left of the photograph below will be discussed at a later date.
In his 1997 book Grace’s Card, the late Charles Chenevix Trench debunked the notion that after the passage of Penal Laws at the start of the 18th century all Irish landowners who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith were deprived of their property. Certainly a great many members of the old order were dispossessed of their land, and often left the country as a result. But this was by no means always the case; in fact, as Trench demonstrates, some families were able to hold onto their ancient estates and even improve their circumstances through advantageous marriage, even though they were not permitted to hold public office or sit in the Irish Houses of Parliament. Having a single heir was certainly helpful: where there were several male children born into the same family, it was possible one of them would join the Established Church and then make claim to the estate. This happened, for example, with the O’Conors of Balanagare: in 1777 the then-O’Conor Don, Charles – a notable antiquarian – found himself fighting for retention of the family property after his younger brother Hugh became an Anglican (in the end Charles won, and Hugh returned to Catholicism). But there are many other instances of families remaining firmly in possession of their land, such being the case in Meath with the Prestons (as Gormanston Ireland’s premier Viscountcy) and Plunkett (as Fingall Ireland’s premier Earldom). Both these old estates are now broken up but in a neighbouring county another family continues to practise the faith of its forebears and to hold onto some of its ancestral lands.
Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath has been rightly described as offering ‘all that anyone might hope for in an Irish country house. A wooded lakeside setting, a charming and eccentric house of several building periods and a family history of distinction.’ To begin with the family, originally their surname was O’Reilly and they have lived in this spot since the Middle Ages. In 1795 Hugh O’Reilly, despite being a Roman Catholic, was created a baronet but then in 1812 he changed his name to Nugent in order to receive an inheritance from his maternal uncle. It would seem not everyone approved of this switch of nomenclature, since the phrase went around, ‘Better an Old Reilly than a New Gent.’ Nevertheless ever since the family has been called Nugent.
As for their house, high above the main entrance can be seen a carving of the O’Reilly coat of arms carrying the date 1614 but this is considered not to be accurate. It may be that the original southernmost section of the castle is older, perhaps a late-Mediaevel fortified tower although subsequent changes make it hard to assign precise dates to this part of the building. In any case, the block looks to have been modernised in the first half of the 18th century when it was transformed into a two-storey, seven bay house with breakfront centre. At the same time long narrow windows were inserted and larger rooms created inside.
Around 1790 the previously mentioned Hugh O’Reilly chose to enlarge the house by adding a central attic with castellations to the old block and then a range immediately to the north featuring slender corner towers. As is ever the case in Ireland, we cannot be certain who was responsible for the design: a chimney piece in the drawing room is identical to one in Curraghmore, County Waterford known to have been the work of James Wyatt, so his name is sometimes proposed as architect. More frequently however the extension at Ballinlough is attributed to an amateur enthusiast called Thomas Wogan Browne who lived at Castle Browne, County Kildare, which from 1788 he had elaborately reconstructed in the gothic style. Two years after his death in 1812, Castle Browne was sold by Wogan Browne’s brother (a Roman Catholic and general in the army of the King of Saxony) to the Jesuit Order which opened there a boarding school for boys known ever since as Clongowes Wood College.
The extension at Ballinlough bears similarities with similar work carried out around the same time at Malahide Castle, County Dublin; the latter property was then occupied by Hugh O’Reilly’s sister Margaret who would later be created Baroness Talbot of Malahide. Hogan Browne is believed to have been the designer of this, and therefore Ballinlough’s extension is likewise attributed to him.
While the rooms in the newer section of Ballinlough are certainly very fine (and will be given consideration here on another occasion) all today’s photographs are of one particular area of the house: its glorious double-height entrance hall with stairs climbing to an unusual bridge gallery. Presumably dating from around the time the building received its first refurbishment, the decoration is exuberant if on occasion somewhat unsophisticated, as though whoever was in charge had discovered a manual on current taste in design and applied its contents liberally throughout. This is part of the hall’s charm: its sheer gusto. The oak panelling is relatively restrained – note the exceptionaly tall and slender lugged door and window frames – but a freer hand has been employed for the carving on the stairs with their fluted balusters and foliate scrolls on both sides of the gallery base. This work is supplemented on the upper sections of the walls, the plasterwork embellished by swags and drapes of foliage and flowers and diverse musical instruments. In this instance, Casey and Rowan in their Buildings of Ireland guide to North Leinster reference similarities to nearby Drewstown, County Meath which is attributed to Francis Bindon but perhaps Ballinlough’s entrance hall was merely influenced by what had been done in the former house rather than designed by the same person.
As all these images indicate, Ballinlough Castle survives in wonderful condition but the house was almost lost in the last century. When Sir Hugh Nugent inherited the estate in 1927 he found it in poor condition and much reduced in size by the Land Commission which proposed to demolish the family home. Fortunately this did not come to pass and today Ballinlough is occupied by the eighth baronet, Nick along with his wife Alice and their children. They host a variety of events on the estate during the year, not least the highly successful Body & Soul Festival each summer.
To conclude with one more picture, the portrait reflected in a mirror below hangs on the stairs at Ballinlough and represents George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham who in the 1780s served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and while in this country established by Royal Warrant the Order of St Patrick. His wife was Lady Mary Nugent, who as her name indicates was related to the family at Ballinlough. A Roman Catholic, in 1798 Lady Mary invited the Reverend Charles O’Conor to become her chaplain and librarian at Stowe, her husband’s seat in Buckinghamshire. Fr Charles was the grandson of the Charles O’Conor already mentioned. He was also brother of another O’Conor Don, Matthew another notable historian and, like the Nugents of Ballinlough, a loyal adherent to the faith of his fathers.
For more information on Ballinlough, see: http://www.ballinloughcastle.ie
Ballinlough will be hosting the third Katie Nugent Duathlon on Sunday October 20th. To sign up or to find out more information about this event, see: http://precisiontiming.primo-solutions.co.uk/ps/event/KatieNugentDuathlon2013
A view of the circular lantern at the top of the back stairs in Tullynally, County Westmeath. Dating from the early 19th century, this was probably designed by James Shiel as part of a programme of work intended to make the house more gothic in style. Yet there is nothing heavy or oppressive about the space. On the contrary, thanks to Shiel’s lightness of approach, the lantern seems not to sit upon but to hover effortlessly above the stairs.
The popularity of the gothic style for domestic buildings in early 19th century Ireland owed something to a desire among landed families to suggest longer residence here than was often actually the case. The Levinges, for example, only came to this country in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars when the Derbyshire-born lawyer William Levinge was appointed Irish Solicitor-General and Speaker of the House of Commons; he later became Attorney-General and Lord Chief Justice. As a reward for his services, in 1704 he received a baronetcy and duly became Sir Richard Levinge of High Park in the County of Westmeath.
Today the property is known as Knockdrin, built close to a late mediaeval castle once belonging to the Tuite family; it was their lands that Sir Richard acquired and on which he built a new house. However by the early 19th century this had fallen into disrepair and so the sixth baronet, also called Sir Richard Levinge, embarked on a rebuilding programme that would give him a splendid gothic castle and all the links with an ancient past this implied.
It is not known for certain who was responsible for the design of Knockdrin Castle. Sir Richard Morrison produced a design for the entrance front but while elements of this were incorporated into the eventual building it cannot be attributed to him. Instead Knockdrin is assigned to James Shiel, believed to have trained in the office of Francis Johnston an architect who created some of the finest gothic revival castles in Ireland, not least Charleville, County Offaly. Like Charleville, Knockdrin’s late-mediaeval trappings are lightly worn: this is essentially a Georgian country house in fancy dress. The entrance front presents a degree of asymmetry, primarily thanks to a long castellated curtain wall leading to a two-storey gatehouse providing access to the service courtyard. But the battlemented main block, of rubble limestone with dressed window surrounds and featuring a wide fanlit doorway flanked by square towers, has only superficial quirks, such as a slim turret on the south corner. And notice how standard rectangular sash windows are used on the upper storeys.
A similarly familiar sense of order can be found inside where once more the usual forms are followed, albeit decked out in gothic flummery. As in so many Irish houses the rear of the entrance hall has a screen but in this instance it is composed of three pointed arches supported on slender cluster-shafted columns. Doors to either side open onto the library and dining room (the latter now regrettably divided in two). But another door provides access to Knockdrin’s most striking feature: a top-lit staircase with the stairs (like the doors throughout the building) made of carved oak. The elaborate first floor is decorated with a gallery of fluted shafts and sequence of ogee-headed niches around the walls. Abundant light provided by a central glazed dome helps to create a fluid, elegant space possessing none of the heaviness customarily associated with the Gothic Revival movement. On the other hand, despite high ceilings emblazoned with plasterwork of Tudor roses and the like, the enfilade of ground floor reception rooms – ballroom, drawing room, library – is less distinguished, although a line of full-length, south-facing windows means that like the staircase hall they are exceptionally bright.
Knockdrin remained in the possession of the Levinge family until the last century. Within weeks of the outbreak of the First World War the tenth baronet, another Sir Richard Levinge, was dead after being hit in the neck by a bullet as he walked along a trench at Ypres. His widow and only son moved to England and the house was let to various tenants; at one point it served as a school and in the early 1940s was occupied by members of the Irish army who inevitably inflicted a certain amount of damage on the building. Finally in 1943, the greater part of the estate having already been broken up by the Land Commission, the castle and surrounding land was sold by the Levinges, thereby ending a link of almost 250 years. The present owners bought the place in 1961 and have cared for it ever since. One should not try to make exaggerated claims for Knockdrin. It is certainly not a house of the first importance, but can be considered noteworthy as an example of the transition from classicism to gothic, when the latter was still a style and not yet an ideology and the former’s principles survive beneath a veneer of ornamentation. Below is a portrait of Sir Richard, the sixth baronet who commissioned the house. The picture was painted by the minor English artist Thomas Shew in 1828 and includes a view of Knockdrin, presumably imaginary since Shew never came to Ireland.
The handsome cut-limestone pedimented doorcase and sidelights of Huntingdon, County Westmeath. A typical Irish 18th century gentleman farmer’s residence, the house dates from c.1770 and is of three bays and two storeys over basement, just one room deep and with a central bow at the rear to accommodate a staircase. An exercise in elegant restraint.
A detail of the plasterwork around a door leading from dining room to drawing room at Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath. This extension to the much earlier house dates from c.1790, its design generally attributed to the amateur architect Thomas Wogan Browne. Browne also undertook similar work at Malahide. where the chatelaine Margaret Talbot was sister to Ballinlough’s then-owner Sir Hugh O’Reilly. The style is an eclectic blend of classical and gothic, and yet the assured delicacy with which it is applied (who can resist an ‘eggcup’ urn perched atop the pilaster) makes the result irresistible. As for Browne, he died – seemingly by his own hand – in 1812, two years after which his brother sold the family estate in County Kildare to the Jesuit order; ever since it has been a boarding school for boys known as Clongowes Wood College.
The entrance to a bedroom on the first floor gallery of Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath. Probably dating from c.1740, the oak door frame is notable for exaggerated height and narrowness. Its geometric formality and that of the adjacent wainscotting provide a decisive contrast to the exuberant rococo plasterwork above the frame, a feature repeated throughout the two-storey hall and stairs to create an enchantingly theatrical interior.
In 1971 when Anthony Powell published the tenth volume of his roman fleuve A Dance to the Music of Time he gave it the title Books Do Furnish a Room. Perhaps he was thinking of the library at Tullynally, County Westmeath? After all, Powell was married to Lady Violet Pakenham whose family has been based at Tullynally since the mid-17th century. This has to be one of the most enticing rooms in Ireland, not least because books provide the greater part of its furnishing. Discovering the weighted shelves at Tullynally is akin to attending a party and encountering lots of old friends while being introduced to just as many new ones. (It has to be said the success of this metaphor is assisted by the presence of a drinks table in one corner of the room).
Previously known as Pakenham Hall, Tullynally was deservedly deemed, ‘an early 19th century Gothic Palace,’ by John Betjeman when Britain’s future Poet Laureate stayed there in September 1939. As the late Mark Bence-Jones observed, ‘with its long, picturesque skyline of towers, turrets, battlements and gateways stretching among the trees of its rolling park, Tullynally covers a greater area than any other country house in Ireland’ and looks ‘not so much like a castle as a small fortified town; a Camelot of the Gothic Revival.’ But buried far beneath its romantic carapace of castellations and battlements lies a plain two-storied Georgian house that once served as home to the Pakenham family.
Thomas Pakenham believes the first alterations to the old building were made soon after the marriage of his forebear and namesake Thomas Pakenham to heiress Elizabeth Cuffe; most likely with her money a third storey was added to the house. That earlier Thomas was created Baron Longford in 1756 and almost twenty years later his widow became Countess of Longford in her own right. The second Baron Longford’s accounts record improvements carried out to the building around 1780, mostly raising ceiling heights and altering windows but perhaps more was done since the person responsible for this work was a ‘Mr Myers.’ He could be the Christopher Myers responsible for gothicising Moore Abbey, County Kildare some years earlier.
In any case it was the second Earl of Longford who initiated the real transformation of Tullynally from house to castle. Two of his brothers were professional soldiers and a portrait of one, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham hangs over the polished limestone chimneypiece in the library. He was killed at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and for purposes of preservation his body was returned to Ireland in a cask of rum; since he had been known to have a surly temper, one of his relatives laconically remarked, ‘The General has returned home in better spirits than he left.’
Despite his soldier brothers, and his brother-in-law being the first Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Longford seems to have preferred less militant pursuits and carried out extensive improvements on his Irish residence. Between 1801 and 1806 the pre-eminent Irish architect of the period, Francis Johnston worked at Tullynally, adding what one observer has since called ‘little more than a Gothic face-lift for the earlier house,’ notably two round towers projecting from the corners of the main block and battlements around the parapet. In 1817 Lord Longford married and no doubt it was the incentive of a new bride and soon-expanding family that encouraged him a few years later to embark on a second round of work at Tullynally, this time using Johnston’s former clerk, James Shiel. From 1839 to 1842 the third Earl, a bachelor, employed architect Sir Richard Morrison to embellish Tullynally further and to design two castellated wings linking the house with its stable courtyard; a final flourish was added by the fourth Earl in 1860 with the construction of a pinnacled tower at the northern end of the site.
Records show a ‘bookroom’ existed within the house from 1740 onwards, and the first inventory of books there was compiled in 1790, with a second made in the mid-19th century. Thomas once told me he could reconstruct the whole library as it was on either of those dates and compare them with its present holdings. The current contents of 6,000 volumes representing 2,000 titles have been meticulously catalogued across 14 different fields including author, name, subject, language and date of publication.
It comes as no surprise that Tullynally is such a bookish house since the Pakenhams are a dauntingly literary family. Earlier generations might have been renowned for their military prowess but the pen has now decisively vanquished the sword. Thomas’ uncle Edward, sixth Earl of Longford wrote many plays as well as several volumes of poetry. He and his wife Christine (also a playwright) were generous supporters of Dublin’s Gate Theatre from 1930 onwards and later founded the Longford Players. Following his death, he was succeeded by his brother Frank, well-known politician and human rights campaigner as well as author and his wife Elizabeth was an historian. Their children include authors Antonia Fraser and Rachel Billington as well as Thomas who is another distinguished historian but probably now more widely known for his books on trees. Thomas’ wife Valerie has written a number of excellent books and a few years ago their daughter Eliza wrote a history of the Pakenhams in the late 18th/early 19th century.
Examples of all their works can be found in Tullynally’s library, the form if not the finish of which dates from the time of Francis Johnston’s intervention. He enlarged the room by stealing a bay from its immediate neighbour so the library now has three south-east facing windows and one facing south-west. It is worth considering what are the elements that make this room aesthetically so satisfying. Obviously its ample proportions help, as does the want of superfluous decoration: the gothic ornamentation found elsewhere is employed very sparingly here. The mellow oak bookshelves covering all four walls and rising from floor to cornice make the greatest impact, especially since most of them carry an amplitude of complementarily-toned leather bindings. Note how the sequence of ten shelves is graduated in height, with smaller volumes occupying the upper levels. The only other feature of note is a set of handsome busts running along the top shelf in one corner of the room. Predating the present library by more than half a century, they represent what were then deemed ancient and modern writers of note. While the library has shutters the absence of poles or even marks in the window embrasures to indicate supports suggests there have never been curtains here. Aside from some Turkey rugs, abundant and comfortable seating, a scattering of mahogany tables and enough lamps to provide light when evening falls, nothing more is required. The library at Tullynally indicates that books do not just furnish a room, they also make it beautiful.
Tullynally’s splendid gardens (and tearoom) are now open and well worth a visit especially since the weather has, at last, improved. For information, see: http://www.tullynallycastle.com
Last year there was a flurry of correspondence in Irish newspapers about the national postal service’s tendency to remove charming old post boxes without notice and substitute drearily standardised replacements. Well here is one that has so far survived the attentions of An Post. Set into a stone wall in front of the former Church of Ireland parish church (now a private residence) in Drumcree, County Westmeath, the box’s two initials indicate it dates from the time of George V, the last British monarch to claim authority in this part of the country.
A first-floor room in Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath which has preserved its early 18th century wainscotting and corner chimneypiece which, as was the style of the period, lies almost flush with the wall. It’s all quite simple, and quite perfect. Unquestionably one of the most charming houses in Ireland, Ballinlough will be the subject of more thorough exploration before too long.