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.
Travelling along a minor road in County Kilkenny, one suddenly sees what looks like the ruins of an immense castle on the horizon. Only when in the immediate vicinity does it become apparent that this is, in fact, an industrial building the original purpose of which has been disguised. Erected on the banks of the river Barrow primarily of limestone with a cut-granite battlemented parapet, the early 19th century six-storey flour mill at Barraghcore dates testifies to the prosperity of this part of the country during that period. Subsequently becoming a malthouse, it continued in operation until the early 1970s when the roof was removed to avoid payment of rates. So sturdily was it built that even after more than forty years in this condition the mill remains standing, but cracks are beginning to appear especially arond the corner turret and its future could yet be in jeopardy.
The porch of St Lachtain’s church in Freshford, County Kilkenny. St Lachtain was born in County Cork at some date in the sixth century and even as an infant is credited with performing miracles. As a teenager he travelled to St Comgall’s monastery in Bangor, County Down where St Molu was his teacher. He was subsequently sent out to found religious houses including that at Freshford the establishment of which is therefore believed to date to before 622 when St Lachtain died. The porch, of honey-toned sandstone and now set into a much later facade, is from the 12th century. It comprises four orders of ornamented arches, the innermost one uniquely preserving a dedication in old Irish script that translates ‘Pray for Gilla Mocholmoc O Cennucain who made it. Pray for Neim [Niamh], daughter of Curc and for Mathgamain O Chiarmeic, for whom this church was made.’ Because the porch is on the west end of the church and faces onto a busy street, it receives relatively little notice from passers-by (but is obviously subject to much pollution).
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.’
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.
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.
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.