Back to Bessborough

Neale Bessborough

The above engraving of Bessborough, County Kilkenny is taken from John Preston Neale’s Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland published in six volumes between 1818-1824. It shows the house as originally designed by Francis Bindon around 1744 and without any of its later alterations and additions. As was mentioned last week, the Ponsonby family spent relatively little time on their Irish estate. When William Tighe published his Statistical survey of the County of Kilkenny in 1802 he observed ‘The principal absentee proprietor is the Earl of Bessborough, who possesses 17,000 acres in the county, about 2,000 of which are let forever…Though not inhabited for forty years, the house is kept in excellent order.’
It would appear that the second Earl of Bessborough, who while on his Grand Tour had travelled as far as Greece and Turkey in the company of the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard (who painted him in Turkish costume) preferred to live in England where he enjoyed a successful political career. At Roehampton outside London he commissioned a new house from Sir William Chambers which was then filled with an exceptional collection of classical statuary. Only after his father’s death in 1893 did the third earl visit Bessborough for the first time but he too was an infrequent visitor. When staying in the house with the latter’s heir in 1828 Thomas Creevey wrote that following the first earl’s death two years after building’s completion in 1755, ‘His son left Ireland when 18 years old and having never seen it more, died in 1792. Upon that event his Son, the present Lord Bessborough, made his first visit to the place, and he is not certain whether it was two or three days he staid here, but it was one or the other. In 1808, he and Lady Bessborough came on a tour to the Lakes of Killarney and having taken their own house in their way either going or coming, they were so pleased with it as to stay here a week, and once more in 1812, having come over to see the young Duke of Devonshire at Lismore, when his Father died, they were here a month. So that from 1757 to 1825, 68 years, the family was (here) 5 weeks and two days.’

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In 1826 the fourth earl, when still going by the courtesy title of Lord Duncannon, came over to Ireland with his wife and eleven children and, astonishingly, remained here until his death twenty-one years later: during the year before this occurred he served as Lord Lieutenant, the first resident Irish landlord to hold that office for a generation. Creevey’s letters to his step-daughter Elizabeth Ord tell us a great deal about life in Bessborough at the time. Of Lady Duncannon he wrote, ‘Her life here is devoted to looking after everybody, and in making them clean and comfortable in their persons, cloaths, cottages and everything…I wish you could have seen us walking up Piltown [the local village] last Saturday. Good old Irish usage…is to place the dirt and filth of the house at the entrance instead of behind it, and this was reformed at every house but one as we walked thro’ and Duncannon having called the old woman out told her he would not have the filth remain in that place…to which she was pleased to reply, “Well, my dear, if you do but walk by next Tuesday not a bit of the dirt shall you see remaining”.’
One suspects that the Duncannons were what might be described as benign despots, ruling over their tenants with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Creevey reported ‘My Lady’s mode of travelling is on a little pony, she sitting sideways in a chair saddle; one of the little girls was on another pony. My Lord and I sauntered on foot by her side. She got off and went into different cottages as we went. She gives prizes for the cleanest cottages…She put her Cottagers in mind of it, but there is a simplicity and interest and kindness in every communication of hers with the people here, on their part a natural unreserved confidential kind of return…’
No doubt worn out by her efforts to improve the lives of those around her, Lady Duncannon died in 1834 at the age of 46. Three of her seven sons became successively Earls of Bessborough, the sixth earl chairing the 1880 commission which investigated the problems of landlord and tenant in Ireland. His younger brother, the seventh earl, had previously been a Church of England clergyman.

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Although Bessborough was occupied more than had previously been the case, it was never a permanent home for the Ponsonbys who continued to spend much of their time in England. In Twilight of the Ascendancy (1993) Mark Bence-Jones reports that the family was in residence for eight weeks each summer and another four at Christmas, but while there they entertained extensively and on one occasion had Queen Victoria’s son the Duke of Connaught and his wife to stay. Bence-Jones notes that the royal party was treated to a concert during which another of the houseguests sang Percy French’s ballad ‘The Mountains of Mourne'; she was supposed to do so in her bare feet but instead wore bedroom slippers. During this period Bessborough was also notable for its amateur dramatic performances, a popular pastime in the Edwardian era; the future ninth Earl of Bessborough was a keen actor and even brought over a professional director from London.
Nevertheless, like his forbears he was inclined to spend the greater part of his time on the other side of the Irish Sea. Prior to his father’s death in 1920 he had qualified as a barrister and served as an MP as well as becoming a successful businessman (and in the early 1930s he would be appointed Governor General of Canada). When the War of Independence broke out in this country he organised to have much of the contents of Bessborough removed from the house and brought to England. It was a wise decision since in February 1923 during the Civil War Bessborough was gutted by fire, along with another house in the same county, Desart Court. The damage to Bessborough was estimated at £30,000.

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The year after Bessborough was burnt, the ninth earl bought Stansted Park in West Sussex and commissioned Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, an old friend from their days together at Cambridge, to carry out alterations to the house. Goodhart-Rendel was a gentleman architect who had inherited Hatchlands in Surrey, which he gave to the National Trust in 1945. Writing of him in October 1942, James Lees-Milne noted, ‘He told me the order of his chief interests in life is 1. the Roman Catholic Church, 2. the Brigade of Guards and 2. Architecture.’ It was thanks to Lees-Milne that Hatchlands came to be given to the NT and today the house is occupied by that wondrous Irish polymath Alec Cobbe in whose own family property Newbridge, County Dublin (now under the authority of the local council) hangs a portrait of his own ancestor Archbishop Charles Cobbe; this was painted by another gentleman-architect Francis Bindon, in turn responsible for the original design of Bessborough.
Completing this circle, after he had carried out the job at Stansted Park, Goodhart-Rendel was invited by the ninth earl to oversee the rebuilding of Bessborough, which he duly did from 1925 onwards. In an article on Stansted Park written for Country Life in February 1982, Clive Aslet quotes Goodhart-Rendel’s comment that Lord Bessborough, when it came to reconstructing his family house, ‘relied on my memory for the character of what new internal detail we were able to put in.’ In fact, it does not appear that the house benefitted from much internal detail since the rooms are noticeably plain, the only striking space being the double-height entrance hall with a large staircase that runs up to a screened corridor and has a first-floor gallery on the opposite wall (see the three photographs immediately above). One also has the impression that the central block alone was rebuilt and not the quadrants or wings.
The reason for this want of detail is most likely that the Ponsonbys never again lived at Bessborough and by the end of the 1930s they had entirely disposed of their County Kilkenny estate. Soon afterwards it was bought by a religious order, the Oblate Fathers who established a seminary there, adding large and aggressively workaday wings to either side of the house; understandably the architect of these extensions is unknown. In 1971 the estate was bought by the Irish Department of Agriculture and today Bessborough, now called Kildalton, serves as an agricultural college at the centre of a large working farm. Other than some fine planting in the immediate parkland, there is little to recall the house’s former existence, so let us end today as we did last week with a page from a visiting book. This one was kept by Lady Olwen Ponsonby who in 1901 married the third Lord Oranmore and Browne. The page below features signatures of guests at a house party at Bessborough in September 1909 and includes that of Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel immediately below a charming drawing he made of the front of the old house. Consider it serving as a memento mori not just for the old Bessborough but for many other such places in Ireland.

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In the Borough of Bess

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Believed to date from September 1908 this photograph, which has appeared on several sites of late, shows the indoor servants at Bessborough, County Kilkenny. The house lay at the centre of an estate owned by the Ponsonby family. The first of their number to settle in Ireland was yet another of those English soldier adventurers who came to this country in such abundance during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Originally from Cumberland, Colonel Sir John Ponsonby was a member of Oliver Cromwell’s army who found himself rewarded for military service here with a parcel of land. He subsequently acquired several more, the largest being an estate by the river Suir in the south of the county hitherto owned by the Anglo-Norman D’Altons after whom it was called Kildalton. Here he settled and having built himself a residence, he re-named the place Bessie-Borough, later Bessborough after his second wife Elizabeth Folliott.
Subsequent generations increased their landholdings in both Kilkenny and the neighbouring counties of Carlow and Kildare and by the mid-18th century were in possession of almost 30,000 acres. Furthermore, following the example of Sir John who had served as a local MP in the Irish Parliament and especially in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars (in which the Ponsonbys had been decisively opposed to the Roman Catholic James II) they became more engaged in politics. William Ponsonby, third son of Sir John, was created Baron Bessborough in 1721 and Viscount Duncannon two years later; in turn his son Brabazon Ponsonby became first Earl of Bessborough in 1739.

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The main block of Bessborough as we see it today dates from c.1744 and was commissioned by the first Earl to mark his new status. Although it is known that Sir Edward Lovett Pearce wrote a memorial about the building’s setting some time before his death in 1733, the design is attributed to Francis Bindon, a gentleman architect from County Clare, also notable as a portraitist (he painted no less than four likenesses of his friend Dean Swift). Bindon was related by marriage to Pearce and collaborated with Richard Castle on several projects, so his credentials are admirable. Nevertheless, one must be honest and admit that Bessborough was never one of his best works, the handling of the central structure being somewhat heavy. Writing in The Beauties of Ireland (1825) John Norris Brewer pertinently observed ‘The mansion of Bessborough is a spacious structure of square proportions, composed of hewn stone, but the efforts of the architect were directed to amplitude, and convenience of internal arrangement, rather than to beauty of exterior aspect. The house extends in front 100 feet, and in depth about 80. Viewed as an architectural object, its prevailing characteristic is that of massy respectability.’
Likewise in an essay on Bindon published in the Irish Georgian Society Bulletin for spring 1967, the Knight of Glin, evidently struggling to find something good to say about Bessborough (he described the garden front as being ‘an uninspiring six-bay breakfront composition with a pair of Venetian windows clumsily adrift on the first floor’) commented ‘The redeeming architectural feature of the house is to be found in the fine handling of the shallow quadrants leading to the flanking pavilions…The facing sides of the pavilions have niches and surmounting lunettes.’ The photographs above show the front of the house before and after it was altered at the end of the 19th century when the double-staircase leading to the raised entrance was removed and the ground was lowered to permit access via a porte-cochere; this work was undertaken by architect Sir Thomas Manly Deane.

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Others found Bessborough more appealing, certainly members of the Ponsonby family even though during the second half of the 18th century they were hardly ever there. The first time the third Earl of Bessborough, who had been raised in England, saw his inheritance was in the aftermath of his father’s death in March 1793. Four months later he wrote to his wife ‘I came here yesterday and am indeed very much pleased with the place…The mountains are beautiful over fine wood, and the verdure is the finest that can be seen…The house is large and very comfortable, but as you may suppose very old-fashioned. There are about 10 or 11 good bedchambers. You would make it very cheerful with cutting down the windows & I believe I should agree.’
His proposals were never carried out, not least because another fifteen years were to pass before Henrietta, Lady Bessborough – the beautiful sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – came to see her husband’s Irish home, although she was equally delighted with it then, writing ‘I like this place extremely; with a very little expense it might be made magnificent, and it is beautiful…’ Likewise when staying in the house in September 1828 with the next generation of Ponsonbys, that indefatigable diarist and letter-writer Thomas Creevey advised his step-daughter Elizabeth Ord, ‘This is a charming place. I ought to say, as to its position and surrounding scenery – magnificent.’ Above are two photographs of the garden front of the rear. Note the two-storey extension to the left of the main block, which may date from the same time as the alterations to the front. However, as the second picture shows, at the very start of the last century, this development was improved by the addition of a balustrade stone terrace with double steps leading down to the garden.

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We have relatively little information about the interiors of Bessborough, although they were, as both the largely absentee third countess and Thomas Creevey duly noted, certainly magnificent. The entrance hall – which became a sitting room after Deane’s alterations – featured a screen of four Ionic columns of solid Kilkenny marble each ten and a half feet tall. Sadleir and Dickinson’s 1915 Georgian Mansions in Ireland includes a couple of photographs of the saloon or drawing room, both shown above. One features a detail of the splendid rococo plasterwork with which the ceiling was decorated. The other shows the chimney piece, a design supposedly taken from William Kent although Sadleir and Dickinson propose the female herms in profile are portraits of the second earl’s two daughters, the Ladies Catherine and Charlotte Ponsonby who married the fifth Duke of St Albans and the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam respectively.
Even though the house was not much occupied during this period, it was well-maintained. When staying at Curraghmore, County Waterford in 1785 Lady Portarlington wrote, ‘Another day we went to Bessborough, which is a charming place, with very fine old timber and a very good house with some charming pictures, and it felt as warm and comfortable as if the family had left it the day before, and it has not been inhabited these forty years.’
There remains a great deal more to tell about Bessborough, its destruction, reconstruction and subsequent history, so rather in the manner of Country Life, today’s piece finishes with the words: To be concluded next week.
Meanwhile, below is a photograph of Bessborough with surrounding signatures of members of a house party there, taken from a visiting book kept by one of the Mulholland family (of Ballywalter, County Down) at the start of the last century.

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When Nature Imitates Art

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It is said that above his drawing board, the great French landscape architect André Le Nôtre hung a sign on which was written ‘To improve nature and reveal true beauty, at the lowest possible cost.’ Today we would consider the Le Nôtre style of gardening so to interfere with nature that its true beauty is impossible to discern and at very considerable cost: the jardin à la française, exemplified by those created by Le Nôtre for Louis XIV at Versailles, is a thing of wondrous artifice.
While the taste for such gardens reigned across Europe for at least a century, as always a reaction against them emerged, inspired at least in part by philosophical speculation on the character of man’s interaction with nature. Thus in 1757, Edmund Burke published his treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful which sought to explain our emotional and aesthetic responses to natural phenomenon such as mountain ranges. As proposed by Burke and his followers the sublime induces extreme passion, most notably terror. This differs from the simultaneously powerful but gentler feelings induced by another aesthetic experience which was first analysed in the 18th century and would have a profound effect on taste in gardening: that of the picturesque.
As the word implies, the picturesque is associated with painting (it derives from the Italian term ‘pittoresco’ meaning ‘in the manner of a painter’). It was thus used by a key figure in the evolution of the concept William Gilpin who in his 1768 Essay on Prints defined picturesque as being ‘expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture.’ Essentially the picturesque as proposed by Gilpin and others offers an aesthetic experience between the extremes of the sublime (which induces an emotion akin to terror) and the beautiful which relies on symmetry and a calm-inducing order. The inspiration for landscapes that might be classified as picturesque came from artists of the previous century, most notably Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Poussin. In Ireland one of the most perfect expressions of this kind of landscape design can be found at Kilfane, County Kilkenny where theories of the picturesque were put into practice with enchanting results.

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The Cantwells were Lords of Kilfane until the 17th century when they were banished to Connaught. Then their lands passed into the hands of Colonel John Bushe who was granted Kilfane in 1670 and whose descendants remained there for the following century. In the late 1700s, a certain John Power came to live in the country at Ballynahinch and soon after married Harriet Bushe whose brother Henry Amias Bushe then lived at Kilfane. Eventually John Power took a lease in perpetuity on the property from his brother-in-law, and carried out many improvements on the estate, as we shall see.
John Power, known as Captain Power after he held that position in the local yeomanry during the 1798 Rebellion (he would be created a baronet in 1836) was the son of a County Tipperary landowner who had served with the British army in India where he had been aide-de-camp to Clive during the Battle of Plassey. It would appear at least one explanation for his move to County Kilkenny was because of his interest in hunting: he constructed kennels at Ballynahinch for his pack of hounds and in 1797 established the Kilkenny Hunt Club. It was said at the time that the land in this part of Ireland was so unenclosed that Captain could follow his hounds all the way to the bridge at Waterford without jumping a single fence. The first of its kind in Ireland, the Kilkenny Hunt Club would meet in the evenings in Kilkenny City at what had hitherto been called Rice’s Hotel (James Rice having been house steward to Captain Power) but soon became known as the Club House, as it is to this day
The Club House was also much frequented by participants and supporters of the amateur theatricals organised by members of local families, not least Captain Power’s brother Richard who was an ardent thespian. So ardent indeed that he was the driving force behind the founding in 1802 of a theatre in Kilkenny called The Athenaeum which thereafter hosted annual seasons of plays until 1819, in all of which Richard Power took a leading role.

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It will be apparent from the above that the Powers were an exceptionally enterprising family, and this is further demonstrated by the creation at Kilfane of a romantic private garden embodying the picturesque ideals of the period. As is so often the case in Ireland, we do not know the precise date for the site’s creation or indeed who was responsible for its design (perhaps the Powers themselves, since the main house contained a famed library and they were likely to be familiar with the theories of Gilpin, along with those of other proponents of the picturesque such as Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight). In any case, Kilfane possessed certain natural advantages: on the edge of the estate there existed an area of woodland where the land dropped away to reveal a rock face thirty feet high descending to an open vale dramatically strewn with boulders. Imbued with potential this spot was greatly enhanced by the Powers’ intervention, not least a waterfall which was fed by a mile-long canal specially created for the purpose.
At the base of the cliff, the water drops into a pool before winding its way across a wide grassy lawn and from thence flowing along a stream that tumbles hither and thither beneath a dense blanket of trees and that can be crossed by a number of mossy stone bridges. The effect is picturesque in the extreme, and was greatly enhanced within the natural amphitheatre at the base of the waterfall by the construction of a thatched cottage orné. The building was essential for the success of the enterprise, not just because it gave a focus to the scene, and a destination for visitors, but also because advocates of the picturesque argued that such landscapes needed a humanising focus in the same way as did the paintings which had inspired them. There had to be a central point to which the eye was drawn, in this instance a charming cottage which might be ‘discovered’ and explored.

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A description of the waterfall and glen at Kilfane in their original state has come down to us in a letter written in 1819 by the botanist and antiquarian Louisa Beaufort to Sophy Edgeworth (whose father Richard Lovell Edgeworth had married Louisa’s sister as his fourth wife) in which she reported, ‘Wednesday Mr. B, Pa Ma and I in the inside jaunting car and Richard on horseback all went to Kilfayne, Mr. Power’s, a very pretty place…All the beginning of the walk very ugly, latter part very pretty by a stream …rushing over large beds of rocks, the beeches high and well planted and the ground blue with harebells the cottage is prettyish, somewhat of a has-been but stands in a tiny lawn near the stream and opposite to a cataract which rushes down the opposite rock…’
So it continued to look for some time thereafter, but later generations of the Power family lost interest in maintaining the site, or perhaps did not have the funds to do so. Gradually the whole place fell into decay, the cottage becoming a ruin, the grassy lawn and surrounding paths overgrown, the woodlands surrendered to laurel and rhododendron (with consequent loss of more delicate ground cover) and the waterfall dried up as the canal was breached and broken. Such might have remained the case to the present but for the discovery and rescue of this delightful spot by its present owners who more than twenty years ago embarked on a complete restoration of the place. Thanks to their admirable diligence the grounds today look much as they did when first created over two centuries ago.
Reverting to Le Nôtre’s maxim – ‘To improve nature and reveal true beauty, at the lowest possible cost’ – one can see how applicable are those words to the glen and waterfall at Kilfane. Here is a landscape every bit as artificial as any designed by the Frenchman. In this instance, however, thanks to theories on the picturesque artifice has been concealed and nature encouraged to imitate art rather than the other way around.

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For more information on the Kilfane Glen and Waterfall, see: http://www.kilfane.com

For One Knight Only

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The 13th century church at Kilfane, County Kilkenny is now a fine ruin, notable for its adjacent castellated presbytery and also for being home to a stone effigy known as the Cantwell Fada. Carved from a single slab of limestone is a knight looking decidedly dapper in his suit of chain mail. One leg daintily crosses over the other not in demonstration of a mediaeval dance step but, it is believed, to indicate the knight’s participation in a crusade. His large shield bears the arms of the Cantwell family and it is therefore presumed the figure commemorates Thomas de Cantwell who died in 1319 and whose family, of Norman origin, were once Lords of Kilfane. Most likely the carving was the lid of a sarcophagus since lost. Over two metres high, it is the tallest such effigy in Ireland or Britain.

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I shall be writing more about Kilfane and its picturesque Glen and Waterfall in a few weeks’ time.

In the Vernacular

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The Irish Aesthete usually features houses that are somewhat larger than average but this week, by way of change, we turn our attention to a building of decidedly modest proportions. The townland of Ballilogue in County Kilkenny enjoys likewise humble status, located down a laneway with seemingly little to distinguish it from thousands of similar spots across the country. Also like so many other places, it was once more densely populated than is now the case. The 1901 national census records twenty-two houses in the townland, presumably all of them simple dwellings unremarkable except for the number of occupants. In one of these properties, for example, Cornelius Meaney, then aged 59 and one imagines a widower, lived alone. Not far away dwelt another member of the family John, together with his wife Bridget and their two sons, James and John aged two and one respectively. Ten years later, when the next census was taken, the household of Cornelius (now listed as being 70) had grown considerably: his 74-year old sister, another Bridget, lived with him, as did the younger Bridget by then the mother of seven children, the eldest (James) being twelve and Mary the youngest just three. Either her husband John had died in the meantime or had gone elsewhere in search of work to support his family. So the house where Cornelius lived alone in 1901 had eleven occupants in 1911, since the census also records the presence of a 29-year old servant called Michael Dunne, presumably a farmhand.

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By the 1911 census the number of occupied dwellings in Ballilogue had halved to eleven, with sixty-eight people living in the townland. A number of them were further members of the extended Meaney family, including 54-year old Patrick, together with his wife Mary, their five children and Edward Flynn who, although aged just fourteen, was already listed as being a ‘servant.’ All eight lived in the house shown here, the origins of which are believed to date back to the 1700s although subject to many changes since. In her truly excellent 1993 book on Irish Country Furniture, Claudia Kinmonth notes ‘By the nineteenth century in Ireland, the term cottage was used disparagingly, mainly by visiting English. The term is not used in this text as it was considered derogatory by country people, who called their homes houses, regardless of size and status.’ Accordingly we shall here refer to the Meaney House, not least because so it remained until only ten years ago, inhabited by successive generations of the same family before being acquired by the present owners.

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To quote from another splendid book, A Lost Tradition: The Nature of Architecture in Ireland written by Niall McCullough and Valerie Mulvin in 1989, typical Irish houses in the vernacular style ‘have a familiar character, cramped, linear spaces set out on a line of doors without beginning or end – in the manner of a Baroque palace with its rooms en enfilade.’ That link between Baroque palaces and humble Irish dwellings may seem fanciful, yet it is often the case that even the most unpretentious of houses derives inspiration from a grander type. McCullough and Mulvin continue by observing how these little buildings ‘have a natural classic balance in the arrangement of simple materials and structure, in the proportion of gables, the relationship between thick white walls and small square windows, in the heavy oversailing roofs and primitive trabeaten doorways.’ This perfectly describes the character of the Meaney House, which is typical of the dwellings occupied by the majority of this country’s population for hundreds of years, although compared to many of the others it can be considered relatively large and well-appointed.

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Traditional house types differed somewhat across Ireland, not least according to whatever materials were available for their construction, and how prosperous was the region. With regard to this part of the country, the Meaney House displays some familiar features of the Irish domestic dwelling, beginning with an entrance placed at the centre of the front and given a small porch in order to shield the interior from the worst effects of our weather. One then steps straight into the main space which, as was almost always the case, is dominated by a large hearth. This was used for cooking purposes (note the crane which allowed kettles and pots to be swung over the fire) but also provided a focal point for sociability: residents and visitors alike gathered here and the large recess beneath a hooded canopy supported by a massive beam running the width of the house allowed everyone to enjoy additional warmth. Immediately behind this is the house’s best room, the equivalent of a parlour, often kept for use only on special occasions and in the Meaney House distinguished by having a cast iron chimneypiece. On the other side of the central room are two bedrooms, with a ladder staircase in one providing access to another sleeping chamber immediately beneath the roof.

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Another common feature of these houses was the versatility of their furnishings. Because space was at a premium and occupancy levels high, very often items served several purposes. The most obvious example of this is the settle bed, which acts as a bench during the day but then at night the seat can be opened, the bedlinen stored inside spread out and a place for sleep thereby created. Dressers, on which china, kitchen and dining utensils would be kept, might have a lower section open except for a series of bars: chickens would be kept here at night to keep them save from predators. A side effect of this was that hens, benefitting from the warm environment, continued to lay eggs all winter.
Inside the Meaney House, as these pictures show, recesses in the walls were also used for storage, the doors’ interiors lined with pieces of patterned paper: those close to the hearth would often hold food that needed to be kept dry, such as tea, sugar and salt. The utilisation of every available space emphasised utility and frugality, but also a desire to maximise comfort in our relatively harsh climate.

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Today the Meaney House is part of a larger agglomeration of buildings restored and developed by the present owners as a retreat where guests may come to stay. When they acquired the house, it still held the greater part of the former owners’ possessions and a decision was taken to retain them in situ and to preserve the interior as an example of how most of our forebears lived until relatively recently. As little as possible was done to disrupt the building’s character or to alter its accumulated patina. For example the corrugated roof, certainly a 20th century intervention under which the older thatch still survives, was not changed. Similarly inside the house the concrete floor – again probably laid at the start of the last century as it would previously have been just compacted earth – has not been touched. The old pieces of furniture remain in place, as do most of the household goods and so forth. Some pieces previously kept out of sight are now on show: plates and platters have been arranged on one of the bedroom walls while pieces of broken china discovered in the immediate vicinity are arranged in a circle and framed. Likewise an assortment of abandoned footwear found outside has been placed on the shelves of an old pine hanging cupboard. These pieces, literal objets trouvés, further enhance the experience of visiting this little house and improve our understanding of its former residents. The Meaney House demonstrates that despite their poverty our ancestors could build with superior taste and a better understanding of the Irish environment than is usually the case today.

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For more information about the Meaney House and the many other marvellous facilities at Ballilogue, see: http://www.ballilogueclochan.com

Around the Ring

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Spotted recently on a minor road in County Kilkenny, this handsome pedimented arch which is flanked on either side by gates. These in turn lead to quadrants terminating in large cut-stone posts. The whole is most arresting despite being in a sad state of disrepair, and appears once to have been the entrance to an estate called Ringwood. In the 18th century, Ringwood was owned by members of the Agar family and the core of a still-extant house nearby was most likely built in the late 1730s by James Agar whose political ambitions were blighted by a long-standing dispute with one of the leading orators of the period, Henry Flood. The two men fought a duel in 1765 and then a second one four years later using pistols. Agar fired first and missed, he shouted ‘Fire, you scoundrel,’ and was promptly shot dead: although the deceased’s family brought a case against Flood for murder, he was found guilty of manslaughter in his own defence and freed. James Agar’s son George had a happier political career than his father, and was eventually ennobled as first (and last) Lord Callan. His prelate nephew Charles Agar became Archbishop first of Cashel and later of Dublin before likewise receiving a peerage as first Earl of Normanton. The Normanton seat today is Somerley, Hampshire which lies just a couple of miles away from a market town called Ringwood.

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Casting Light on the Subject

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An elaborate late-Gothic window with double trefoil arch below a quatrefoil at the east end of the south aisle of St Mary’s, Gowran, County Kilkenny. The core of the present building dates from around 1275 when it was erected on the site of an earlier monastery. St Mary’s was a collegiate church, meaning it was placed under the care of a “college” of clerics who lived in a community without submitting to any specific monastic rule. Since the 19th century the chancel and central tower have served as the local Church of Ireland church while the main body has remained a picturesque ruin. The play of patterned sunlight seen here comes from the great west window at the nave end.