The double doors leading from drawing to dining room at Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath are recessed within a large arched bow. And there are further bows evident in the delicate plasterwork that runs around the alcove and features garlands of flowers and leaves caught up in ribbon. The style is essentially rococo in spirit even though the room and its decoration date from c.1790, one of those anachronisms that one encounters in Ireland where a fondness for certain forms could sometimes linger long after they had fallen out of fashion elsewhere.
In a book of his photographs published the year he died (2011) architectural historian Maurice Craig included the image above of Gaulstown, County Westmeath which he had taken in 1975. He recalled seeing the house then for the first time and commented, ‘It looked a bit neglected, but it seemed to be all there, especially the roof. I saw a new house only a few yards away (out of frame on the left) and drew the obvious conclusion: that my pet would soon be bundled away. I was wrong.’
In fact Maurice was wrong on two counts. Firstly there never was a new house only a few yards away, it is actually hundreds of yards away and completely invisible from Gaulstown. And of course its construction did not mean the loss of the old house which continues to stand almost four decades after it was noted by Maurice.
As is unfortunately all too often the case, we know little about the origins of Gaulstown. It bears similarities to a pair of similarly miniature Irish villas, Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (1735) and Ledwithstown, County Longford (1746) both of which are attributed to Richard Castle. Both are also larger and more refined in their details, and one has a sense that Gaulstown, the earliest of the trio (dating from c.1730) was something of a trial run for the other two. Casey and Rowan propose that it might have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce or perhaps his associate William Halfpenny. Maurice Craig was inclined to agree with this assessment but it seems too grand an attribution for such a modest dwelling. Might not Gaulstown instead have been the work of an amateur, perhaps even the original owner, a member of the Lill family generations of which lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries (although they would change their name to de Burgh for the sake of an inheritance)? Without wishing to disparage its considerable charms and its importance Gaulstown has the appearance of a building containing a variety of architectural motifs borrowed from books but, as the interior layout reveals, without these being necessarily completely understood or interpreted.
Casey and Rowan describe Gaulstown as being of only one storey over raised basement and with an attic, but this is not really the case since it possesses a trio of reasonably substantial floors. The roughcast rendered exterior is rigorously plain of three bays, that in the centre of the south-facing facade projecting forward. A long flight of steps leads to the substantial cut-limestone doorframe, which is an adapted Venetian window above which floats a small Diocletian window beneath the pediment: the only other openings on the front are windows on either side of the entrance, so that the building has an ascetic rigour that is most appealing.
Inside the main floor was originally divided (just like ancient Gaul) into three parts. The centre space formed one room running south to north for the full, albeit not terribly considerable, depth of the house. However at some date, probably for reasons of greater comfort and warmth, a partition wall was inserted dividing it into entrance hall with drawing room behind: the latter has a Venetian window mirroring that used for the entrance. To the east is a dining room, to the west the staircase and, behind it, a small boudoir or office. The stairs are lit by a large window on the return and they lead to a surprising number of bedrooms. Meanwhile the basement is also more generously spacious than would superficially appear to be the case.
‘This appealing structure,’ comments the author of Gaulstown’s assessment in http://www.buildingsofireland.ie ‘was designed with obvious architectural aspirations and is extremely well-proportioned, having instant visual appeal. It is strangely imposing for a structure built on such a small scale and this is down to the quality of the massing.’ This is an admirable summary of the house, which further benefits from its setting, being reached at the end of a long straight drive and surrounded by open countryside. To the immediate west are the remains of the old brick-walled garden, behind is a still-working farmyard. These elements enhance the impression that Gaulstown was always intended as the residence of a gentleman farmer even though Casey and Rowan rightly refer to it possessing ‘an aristocratic or cultivated rusticity.’
Gaulstown apparently changed hands on a number of occasions before being acquired by the current owner’s grandfather. Today it is a family home, the present generation of occupants keenly aware of the building’s need for some remedial work: damp is something of a problem on the gable walls and, as these pictures make clear, the fenestration could be improved. Yet these issues are not insuperable, and one of the pleasures of the house is that it looks to have retained so many of its original features such as the panelled doors and shutters with their chunky lugging, the plain but deep cornicing, the understated stair balustrades and so forth. It could, and ought to, be restored to better condition and the aspiration is that this will happen before too long. A little gem like Gaulstown deserves to be preserved, not least because today there are too few of its kind left in Ireland.
*Readers who studied Latin will no doubt recall the observation in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars ‘Gallis est omnis divisa in partes tres’ (Gaul as a whole is divided into three parts).
The gate lodge at Rockview, County Westmeath. It must date from around the same period as the main house, built in the early years of the 19th century for a branch of the Fetherston-Haugh family. With just a couple of rooms, the lodge is a more humble residence but its exterior has been aggrandised by the presence of arched recesses framing the mullioned window. A pair of very slender wrought-iron columns support the eaves and add further interest to this side of the building.
An stone urn sitting atop a double plinth closes a flight of terraces at Knockdrin, County Westmeath. In the early 19th century, the heavily-castellated Knockdrin replaced an earlier Georgian house known as High Park, and perhaps this piece of garden ornamentation is a survivor of the earlier property? Romantically entwined with ivy, it looks as though painted by Rex Whistler. (For more information about Knockdrin see Knock Knock, August 5th 2013).
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.