Ballyragget Castle, County Kilkenny is a late 15th century tower house originally built by a branch of the Butler family one of whom, Richard Butler became first Viscount Mountgarret in 1550; his mother, the spirited Lady Margaret FitzGerald, Countess of Ormond is said to have lived here. Butlers continued to occupy the building until 1788 when they moved into a house close by. Surrounded by a bawn wall and climbing four or five storeys high with fine crenellations and handsome cut stone windows, the castle could easily be put to good use, not least as a tourist attraction. Instead it stands on the edge of a farmyard, all doors and other points of ingress sealed by concrete breeze blocks. An admirable example of how to treat the country’s built heritage…
A crimson morocco case holding five George II steel forks due to be sold next Wednesday 25th February by Fonsie Mealy in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny. The forks have stained ivory handles, each bearing the same initials and crest as those of Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin from 1713 until his death in 1745. Might these therefore have belonged to him, and was it perhaps during his lifetime that the prongs of the left-most fork were first filed down, presumably because one of them broke or was bent? Before passing to the vendor’s family the set belonged to the 19th century archaeologist and antiquarian John Ribton Garstin, one-time President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. It is expected to make €2,000- €3,000.
Anyone familiar with the Irish Georgian Society will know that the original organisation of that name was established in 1908 with the specific intention of creating a record of the country’s 18th century domestic architecture. Five volumes were produced over successive years, the first four devoted to Dublin while the last, which appeared in 1913, made an attempt to provide an overview of country houses. Two years later, another work, Georgian Mansions in Ireland, appeared. This book, written by barrister and genealogist Thomas U. Sadleir and architect Page L. Dickinson, both members of the now-dissolved Irish Georgian Society, was intended to correct what they believed to have been a problem with the earlier work: namely that its compilers ‘laboured under a disadvantage, for they had but slight knowledge of the existing material.’ The two authors proposed that whereas the compilers of the Irish Georgian Society volumes were well informed about historic buildings in Dublin, ‘as regards the country districts, their number, their history and their situation were alike unknown.’ For Sadleir and Dickinson, writing almost a century ago, the contrast between historic properties in Dublin and the rest of the country could not have been more stark. The former’s large houses, ‘so far from being, as they once were, the residences of the rich, are too often the dwellings of the poor; at best, hotels, offices or institutions. But the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rackrent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with the treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
It is unlikely the authors would have been able to write such words even a decade later, and certainly not today. ‘Irish houses seldom contain valuable china,’ they advised, ‘but good pictures, plate, and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon. How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni, or that fashionable Irish artist Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Below are three houses featured in Georgian Mansions in Ireland, with a selection of the pictures included in the book. The line drawings are by the architect Richard Orpen, who had been in partnership with Dickinson before the outbreak of the First World War.
Platten Hall, County Meath dated from c. 1700 and was built for Alderman John Graham of Drogheda: Maurice Craig proposed the architect responsible was Sir William Robinson. Built of red brick and with a tripartite nine-bay facade, it was originally three-storied but the uppermost floor was removed in the 19th century. Alderman Graham’s son William Graham married the Hon. Mary Granville, second daughter of George, Lord Lansdown and cousin of the inestimable Mrs Delaney who visited Platten on several occasions during her first marriage (when she was known as Mrs Pendarves). Sadleir and Dickinson quote one of her letters from January 1733, in which she described a ball given in the house: ‘we began at seven; danced thirty-six dances, with only resting once, supped at twelve, everyone by their partner, at a long table which was handsomely filled with all manner of cold meats, sweetmeats, creams, and jellies. Two or three of the young ladies sang. I was asked for my song, and gave them “Hopp’d She”; that occasioned some mirth. At two we went to dancing again, most of the ladies determined not to leave Plattin till daybreak, they having three miles to go home, so we danced on till we were not able to dance any longer. Sir Thomas Prendergast is an excellent dancer – dances with great spirit, and in very good time. We did not go to bed till past eight; the company staid all that time, but part of the morning was spent in little plays. We met the next morning at twelve (very rakish indeed), went early to bed that night, and were perfectly refreshed on Saturday morning. …’ As for Platten when they knew it, Sadleir and Dickinson comment: ‘Like all early Georgian houses, the main entrance is on a level with the ground; it opens into the imposing hall, which contains a handsome grand staircase in three flights, supported by six Ionic columns, the floor being paved in black and white marble. The walls are panelled, and there are other symptoms of early construction; there is some tasteful decoration, the frieze being very richly carved, and displaying tiny figures, quite Jacobean in treatment. Note, too, the gallery, which we also illustrate, with its handsome balustrading, with ramps at the newels. Below the gallery the panels are in plaster.
Platten once afforded considerable accommodation, but one wing has been allowed to fall into disrepair, as its bricked-up windows show, and the excellent rooms in the basement are no longer utilized…the dining-room, a large apartment panelled in oak, which is to the right as we enter the hall; it has handsome high doors with brass locks, and the wainscot is ornamented with boldly carved fluted pilasters. There is a curious, probably early Georgian, mantel in white and grey marble.’
Platten Hall was demolished in the early 1950s.
The core of Turvey, County Dublin was built in the 16th century by the lawyer Sir Christopher Barnewell and the property thereafter passed down through various branches of the family across some 400 years. In the late 17th century the property was converted into a house of nine bays and two storeys with a gabled attic: the latter became an attic storey with a parapet and three lunette windows towards the middle of the following century. Turvey had an interesting Baroque entrance door with semi-circular pediment and urns. Inside there was excellent early Georgian panelling and a splendid rococo ceiling in the library.
Sadleir and Dickinson wrote of the building: ‘This mansion, situated in County Dublin, close to the village of Donabate, is probably one of the oldest houses now standing in Ireland. It is a plain building, having, like Platten Hall, suffered in appearance through the removal of its gabled roof. As it stands it is a seventeenth-century house, though part of an earlier structure which occupied the site would appear to have been incorporated. The original plan consisted of a centre block, in which was the entrance, with wings at right-angles to it at either side. But one of these, has been entirely removed, and the rest of the building considerably altered, apparently in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, to which most of the fire-places and nearly all the joinery, including the principal staircase, may be ascribed. There is another staircase, now disused, Jacobean in plan, with twisted balusters and a central well. Here and there are specimens of seventeenth- century panelling, but the panels in the reception-rooms are early Georgian. Formerly the house had three gables in front, but…these gables have had the spaces between them filled in, and the present parapet added. The semicircular windows belong to the same transformation. The size and position of the old gables and windows can be clearly traced in the attics, which are unusually large and really fine rooms, though for some reason never finished. The Georgian roof is carried in a single span over the main roof; it is supported by huge quern post trusses. In front of the house the ground-level has been raised; and, as we have seen in other houses altered at the same period, the hall-door is on what was originally the first floor. There is a secret room, the windows of which have been built up, which was apparently reached from a sliding-panel on the old staircase; but as the opening was blocked when the panelling was removed, there is now no way of access.’
Turvey was demolished, amid some controversy, by property company the Murphy Group in 1987.
Desart Court, County Kilkenny was built c.1733 for John Cuffe, first Lord Desart, its design attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. An example of Irish Palladian architecture, the house rose two storeys over basement and was linked to two-storey wings by niched quadrants. The centre block of seven bays was distinguished by a central feature of four superimposed engaged Doric and Ionic columns and a rusticated doorway beneath a first-floor rusticated niche; the garden front followed a somewhat similar pattern but only had engaged Ionic columns on the first storey. The interiors were notable for elaborate plasterwork ceilings in the entrance hall and drawing room, and for a pair of staircases with carved scroll balustrades.
Sadleir and Dickinson were understandably impressed with Desart Court, noting, ‘The three reception rooms facing south, of which the centre is the drawing-room, all communicate, that to the left being the boudoir. The drawing-room, a wellproportioned and nicely lighted apartment, has an elaborate rococo ceiling displaying much originality of design, and doubtless contemporary with that in the hall. Heads are introduced at intervals as well as masks; the latter an unusual feature, which we also found in the attic story at Florence Court. The colouring is cream, picked out with of the joinery has been renewed, though the window-seats remain. We cannot overlook the beautiful inlaid walnut cabinet of English or Dutch manufacture. The view from this room is particularly extensive. Another fine piece of furniture, but of Irish workmanship, is in the adjoining boudoir, which contains a Georgian mantel in Siena and white marble.
To the right of the hall lies the Library, containing some old-fashioned bookcases enriched with fluted pilasters, while to the left is the dining-room, a lofty, almost square, apartment ; neither retains any Georgian features. Desart Court is singular in its two handsome grand staircases situated at either end of the house, and corresponding in detail. Other houses, such, for instance, as Sopwell Hall, and possibly Cashel Palace, possessed this feature, but in no case in Ireland have we found the handsome carved scroll-work in oak, in lieu of balusters, such as we have here. In each case there is a dado of oak, but the decoration above is in plaster panels of early type. A lofty corridor, lighted by a lantern, gives access to the bedrooms, which, like those at Cashel, have high, narrow doors.’
Desart Court was burnt out by the IRA in February 1923 and its superlative contents all lost. Although the house was subsequently rebuilt under the supervision of Richard Orpen, this was razed to the ground in 1957.
From an old photograph album, a view of New Park, County Kilkenny. Situated high above the river Suir on the opposite bank to the City of Waterford and with parkland running down to the water, the house was built in the second half of the 18th century by Simon Newport, who established the region’s largest and most important bank, Simon Newport and Sons: at the time there was a common expression in Waterford, ‘as good as Newport’s notes.’ Unfortunately in 1820 the bank failed and the founder’s younger son William Newport who was then responsible for its affairs committed suicide. Although he repudiated any personal liability Simon Newport’s elder son, Sir John Newport, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer who was then an M.P. in London, contributed at least £5,000 towards numerous local compensation claims. On his death in 1843, New Park was inherited by Sir John’s only surviving nephew, the Rev. John Newport and when he died sixteen years later, the estate was sold to Fitzmaurice Gustavus Bloomfield whose mother had been heiress to the Castle Caldwell estate in County Fermanagh. New Park remained with the Bloomfield family until the house was destroyed by fire in 1932: below is a photograph of its appearance after the conflagration.
Among the most engaging books of architectural history published during the last century was Maurice Craig’s Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976). From its title alone, one recognises this was a work out of the ordinary: Maurice was not interested in examining the more familiar big houses of Ireland many of which even by that date had been ‘accorded some fitting attention in fittingly sumptuous books.’ Instead he turned his well-honed eye on a category of dwellings which had hitherto been the subject of little scrutiny; indeed since then it has not received much more coverage. ‘If I have laid what some readers may think is undue emphasis on certain buildings which may appear small, insignificant and not very exciting to look at,’ he wrote in his preface, ‘it is because I believe they are essential links in the chain of evolution.’
Later in the Introduction he commented, ‘An unhappily high proportion of the houses illustrated in this book have either disappeared or have been mutilated or have fallen into disrepair. There are three reasons for this. One is that there seems to be a baleful correlation between architectural quality and misfortune. Too often it is the best buildings which fall victim to malice, neglect, ignorance, poverty or some amalgam of these evils; or to what can be worst of all, uncertainty of title especially when combined with bucolic paranoia. A second reason is that when a house is threatened or destroyed, the least we can do for it is to record its qualities, since it can no longer speak for itself. Finally there are times when the dereliction of a house gives opportunities for investigating, measuring and anatomising it, which would not occur if in normal occupation.’
So Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size concentrated on those properties ‘built by or lived in by minor gentry or prosperous farmers, or by manufacturers or traders, or occupied as dower houses, agent’s houses or as glebe-houses. The gulf between the ‘big house’ and the cottage has perhaps been over-emphasised by historians, and too much has been made of the absence of a middle class.’ The house featured today, Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny, is a representative example of this category.
The land on which Ballysallagh stands was for long owned by members of the Purcell family. The Purcells were of Anglo-Norman origin, their name believed to derive from the old French word ‘pourcel’ meaning piglet. Sir Hugh Purcell is said to have participated in the Norman invasion of Ireland and in the early 13th century his grandson, also called Sir Hugh, married a daughter of Theobald FitzWalter, Chief Butler of Ireland. This union was the origin of the link between the family and the powerful Butlers; in 1328 James Butler, first Earl of Ormond granted the Purcells the feudal title of Baron of Loughmoe, County Tipperary. The grandfather of the late 17th century composer Henry Purcell was a cousin of the Baron of Loughmoe.
Allied to the Butlers, the Purcells were concentrated in Counties Tipperary and Kilkenny and the lands of Ballysallagh remained in their possession during the Tudor colonisation despite periodic attempts at rebellion: in December 1571 Nicholas Purcell fitz Edmund of Ballysallagh was pardoned by the crown authorities, as was Edmund Purcell in 1589 and Edmund Purcell fitz Nicholas in 1600. However in 1653 Nicholas Purcell forfeited Ballysallagh and 758 acres under the Cromwellian seizures, and a large number of members of the family were certified for transplantation to Connaught. Yet the family remained on the site, most likely as tenants; in the early 18th century James Purcell was living at Ballysallagh and in 1720 his daughter and heiress, Mary Purcell wed Gerald Byrne from County Carlow who was assigned the property as part of the marriage settlement. It seems likely the couple built the present house soon afterwards: a stone at the front carries the date 1722.
Gerald and Mary Byrne had several children, only one of whom, their daughter Catherine, survived to adulthood. (Gerald Byrne also had an illegitimate son, James Byrne to whom in his will he left farm stock and land.) Dying in 1740 at the age of 26 Catherine predeceased both her parents but not before marrying William Doyle of County Kildare, with whom she had three children, two sons and a daughter. One of those sons, Gerald Doyle, inherited Ballysallagh from his grandfather Gerald Byrne in 1760. Two years after the death of Catherine Doyle her husband, Gerald Doyle’s father, had married again, his second wife being Frances Purcell of Usher’s Island, Dublin; with her, he had another three children, once more two sons and a daughter. However, neither Gerald Doyle nor his older brother Laurence married and in 1785 they sold their interest in Ballysallagh and its 450 acres to the family of their step-mother. Thus it remained in the possession of the Doyles, albeit not descended by blood from the original Purcells. Instead it belonged to the children of William Doyle’s second marriage, first another William Doyle, who also lived in Rutland Square, Dublin and died unmarried in 1847 and then Joseph Doyle, a doctor who served as Surgeon to the College at Maynooth, County Kildare. He likewise married a Purcell and the couple had a son John Joseph Doyle who inherited Ballysallagh and lived there until his death in 1890 at the age of 75. John Joseph’s son Gerald Doyle was the last of the family to live at Ballysallagh: following his death in 1939 for the first time the place was put on the market.
Despite Ballysallagh’s somewhat convoluted history of descent given above, the fact that the house did not pass beyond different branches of the same family for more than 200 years explains why it remained relatively unchanged after being first built in the early 18th century. There are a few decorative elements that were altered according to shifts in fashion and perhaps the advent of additional funds: the drawing room, for example, contains a white marble chimney piece that looks to be from the mid-19th century. Prior to that, in 1810 folding doors were introduced halfway back the entrance hall so as to separate it from the rear stairs. Above those doors is a splendidly wide fanlight (to provide more light to the front section of the hall should the doors be shut) and on an adjacent wall hangs a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze.
Internally the house follows a tripartite plan, with main reception rooms to right and left of the entrance hall and behind these smaller rooms, a study and butler’s pantry. The wooden staircase is accommodated in a full height extension to the rear of the main block and leads to a spacious first-floor landing, an especially pleasing feature in houses such as this, with four bedrooms, two on either side. Another staircase of Kilkenny limestone, also fitted into the rear extension, provides access to the basement which continues to hold the house’s kitchen and other service areas. Externally, the building has a simple but satisfying symmetry, of five bays and two storeys over a raised basement. Maurice Craig reproduced the facade in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and noted a number of distinctive features such as a limestone plat-band in place of a cornice beneath the steeply pitched roof (in fact, there is a cornice but partially obscured by the guttering), and the fact that the end quoins are bolder and better finished than those of the single-bay breakfront. The entrance is approached by a flight of limestone steps, its door having a Gothic-glazed fanlight that the present owners have copied for the small lunette window in the breakfront pediment.
In February 1940 Ballysallagh and some 117 acres were offered for sale, a poster produced by the auctioneers describing it as a ‘splendid stone-built residential and agricultural property.’ At the start of the following month, a two-day auction saw the dispersal of the house’s contents: a newspaper advertisement went through many of the lots, including in the entrance hall a ‘large Antique Hanging China Display Press, enclosed by two glazed panel doors of unique design, Ornamental Frieze and Fluted Columns.’ Either this failed to find a buyer or the difficulty of removing the cabinet from the wall was recognised. Whatever the explanation, it remains in place, unlike other pieces accumulated by successive generations of Purcells, Byrnes and Doyles, such as the drawing room’s ‘Splendid Round Mahogany table, with rope edge and claw feet’ or the dining room’s ‘Small Sheraton mahogany wine cooler, with brass mountings on castors.’ These meagre descriptions are all that remain to indicate how the house was furnished over the course of two centuries. The present owners bought Ballysallagh in 1987 and since then have worked without cease to bring the place to its present excellent condition: looking at it today, one might imagine the property had never changed hands. Extensive work has been undertaken both indoors and outside. With regard to the latter, new formal gardens have been laid out behind the house and a maple walk created leading to a small folly. In his Introduction to Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, Maurice Craig advised that the buildings featured had been chosen ‘for a combination of their architectural quality and the significance of their typology of the subject.’ Ballysallagh deserves attention and plaudits for the same reasons: even since the book first appeared quite a number of properties it covered have been lost. This makes Ballysallagh’s survival all the more precious.
In the Butler’s Pantry at Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny, a cabinet filled with old glassware while (below) on an adjacent shelf antique platters and dishes await deployment for dinner. Dating from 1722, Ballysallagh was originally built for a branch of the Purcell family, allies of the powerful Butler clan, and is a perfect example of the medium-sized houses constructed for members of Ireland’s gentry during this period of extended peace in the country.
‘Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.’
From Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard (1750)
‘…Now, fond Man!
Behold thy pictur’d Life: pass some few Years,
Thy flow’ring SPRING, thy short-liv’d SUMMER’s Strength,
Thy sober AUTUMN, fading into Age,
And pale, concluding, WINTER shuts thy Scene,
And shrouds Thee in the Grave — where now, are fled
Those Dreams of Greatness? those unsolid
Hopes Of Happiness? those Longings after Fame?
Those restless Cares? those busy, bustling Days?
Those Nights of secret Guilt? those veering Thoughts,
Flutt’ring ‘twixt Good, and Ill, that shar’d thy Life?
All, now, are vanish’d! Vertue, sole, survives,
Immortal, Mankind’s never-failing Friend,
His Guide to Happiness on high…’
From James Thomson’s The Seasons, first part Winter (1726)
‘Those Graves, with bending Osier bound,
That nameless heave the crumbled Ground,
Quick to the glancing Thought disclose
Where Toil and Poverty repose.
The flat smooth Stones that bear a Name,
The Chissels slender help to Fame,
(Which e’er our Sett of Friends decay
Their frequent Steps may wear away.)
A middle Race of Mortals own,
Men, half ambitious, all unknown.
The Marble Tombs that rise on high,
Whose Dead in vaulted Arches lye,
Whose Pillars swell with sculptur’d Stones,
Arms, Angels, Epitaphs and Bones,
These (all the poor Remains of State)
Adorn the Rich, or praise the Great;
Who while on Earth in Fame they live,
Are sensless of the Fame they give. ‘
From the Rev. Thomas Parnell’s A Night-Piece on Death (1722)
‘Dull Grave! Thou spoil’st the dance of youthful blood,
Strik’st out the dimple from the cheek of mirth,
And every smirking feature from the face;
Branding our laughter with the name of madness.
Where are the jesters now? The men of health
Complexionally pleasant? Where the droll,
Whose every look and gesture was a joke
To clapping theatres and shouting crowds,
And made even thick-lipp’d musing Melancholy
To gather up her face into a smile
Before she was aware? Ah! sullen now,
And dumb as the green turf that covers them.’
From Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743)
All the pictures shown here were taken in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Kilkenny. Located to the immediate west of High Street, it was already sufficiently well established by 1205 for Hugh de Rous, Bishop of Ossory to convene an ecclesiastical court on the premises. The church was substantially rebuilt in 1739 and much of its present form dates from that period. It was deconsecrated in the 1950s and has since been used for various uses; there are now plans for its restoration and conversion into a civic museum.
The establishment of a graveyard here seems to be contemporaneous with the church, and it was always a burial place for the rich mercantile families of Kilkenny such as the Rothes and Shees. Within its original boundaries are probably the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments, a reflection of the affluence of the citizens who commissioned them.