A view of the entrance hall at Ballynagall, County Westmeath. The house dates from c.1808 when it was built at an estimated cost of £30,000 for James Gibbons to a design by Francis Johnston. This photograph was taken in 1961, a year before the contents of the house were sold: within two decades the building itself had been stripped of its fittings and left to fall into ruin. The photograph below shows the same entrance hall today. I shall be discussing the plight of Ballynagall, and several other houses which have seen their contents sold, at a conference on Art in the Country House being held at Dublin Castle next Thursday, April 23rd. For more information on this event, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/art-in-the-country-house
The inner hall of Kilrush, County Kilkenny. A branch of the St Georges settled here in the 17th century but for a long time the family lived in a late mediaeval tower house which was refurbished and enlarged. Finally in the second decade of the 19th century and following his marriage, Arthur St George commissioned a new residence from local architect William Robertson. Its most striking feature is the space shown here which looks as though it might have been designed by Sir John Soane. Via a substantial staircase, the inner hall leads to the first-floor landing at the centre of which is a circular well-gallery surrounded by Doric columns and pilasters. Thanks to this being topped by a glazed dome the opening sends a broad pool of light into the hall below: notice the shadow of the gallery’s balusters thrown onto the far wall.
It has long been commented that Mountainstown, County Meath is mis-named since its location in the midst of flat countryside is near neither a mountain nor a town. One ill-tempered Englishwoman in the 1840s wrote ‘At the beginning of this month we came to a place called Mountainstown, which name it must have been received from the inveterately stupid and perverse disposition of the Natives, because the place is situated in a low and flat Country, and there is not a Mountain to be seen within the Horizon.’ In fact the denomination most likely derives from an Anglicisation of the Irish for ‘Beside a Bog.’ It has borne the name for hundreds of years since the house here, soon due to celebrate the tercentenary of its construction, has always been known as Mountainstown. It is believed to have erected around 1720 for Richard Gibbons whose father Samuel acquired the estate in the late 17th century: in the same year he made a visitation of his diocses, Bishop Anthony Dopping of Meath recorded ‘Mr Gibbons and his wife came here in xmas 1693.’ Mr Gibbons’ son Richard is likewise recorded as being at Mountainstown in Faulkiner’s Dublin Journal in 1745, by which time the house would have been well finished.
The oldest part of Mountainstown is a stocky rectangular block with six bay front, of two main storeys with dormer attic above and basement below. Kevin Mulligan has described the building as occupying ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion’ and like others employed the terms bucolic and naive when speaking of its design. Mountainstown’s facade is its most immediately striking feature, a determined effort on the part of Richard Gibbons to display awareness of current architectural trends even if these were employed in a somewhat unsophisticated manner. Four slender Ionic pilasters ascend to the top of the building but without the intervention of an entablature and frieze; instead they meet the roofline via a narrow moulded cornice. The two central pilasters support a pediment but again appear too slight for the task. The raised entrance is reached by flights of stone steps with iron work railings on either side, the Venetian doorcase once more being flanked by pairs of pilasters with sidelights above which sit half-urns while over the door itself is a stone cartouche featuring the arms of the Pollocks, the family that followed the Gibbonses at Mountainstown. The latter remained in possession of the estate until 1796 when it was sold to the John Pollock who had already been renting for some time.
The history of Mountainstown’s next owners represents a familiar trajectory from merchant class to gentry, a route to which many families formerly aspired. The first John Pollock moved from Scotland to Ireland in 1732 and settled in Newry where he became involved in the burgeoning linen trade. His son continued in the same business and was commemorated by a tombstone in St Mary’s, Newry declaring he and his wife Elizabeth had been ‘parents of eleven children all of whom they lived to see established in the world.’ One of those children, another John, became a successful solicitor in Dublin and was appointed Transscriptor of the Court of the Exchequer. He also acted as agent for the Hills, Marquesses of Downshire, among the country’s largest landowners: at one time they had 115,000 acres, mostly but not exclusively in County Down. Hence being their agent was a profitable occupation and allowed John Pollock first to rent and then to buy Mountainstown although he retained a townhouse in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square so that his business could continue. Married to the daughter of a London banker, around 1811 he extended Mountainstown by adding a two-storey wing to the south-west of the older building. The ground floor of this new section contains a large drawing room with canted bay window and beyond it an equally substantial dining room. To the immediate right of the facade is a long kitchen wing and behind this lies a very substantial stable yard added by the next generation.
Mountainstown is thus of two periods and two parts, each complementing the other. While the later portion of the house is relatively plain and very much in the Regency taste with deep tripartite windows, high ceilings and understated plasterwork, the earlier reflects the more ostentatious taste of the period in which it was built. The entrance hall, stairs and first floor landing retain their original decoration, moulded plaster panels with lugged heads forming tabernacle frames beneath a dentil cornice. The handsome stairs are wide and shallow, Doric balusters supporting the handrail and the side of each tread adorned with carved curls of foliage. As with the facade, this decoration represents the original builder’s interest in showing he was au courant with the latest fashions. The most unexpected feature can be found almost immediately inside the front door: what looks to be a death mask set into the ceiling. It is commonly believed that the man shown is Samuel Gibbons, perhaps placed here as an act of filial piety on the part of his son Richard. The rooms in the front portion of the house are noticeably smaller than those added in the 19th century, and some have angled corner chimneypieces: a marble panel on that in the former morning room featuring a knight in armour.
In the mid-1820s Mountainstown was inherited by Arthur Hill Cornwallis Pollock, named after his father’s patron, Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire. Almost twenty years before he had been sent on a tour of Europe by his parents, presumably keen that their heir have the upbringing of a gentleman. Having visited France and Italy, he travelled as far as Russia, spending time at the Imperial court in St Petersburg with his friends Lords Royston and Somerton, before finally returning home in the second half of 1807. Four years later he married a cousin and devoted the rest of his life to agriculture and country pursuits. It was Arthur who created the spacious yard immediately to the north of the main house as he often won medals for his animals at agricultural shows. The Pollocks were always keen on hunting and Arthur had his own pack of hounds at Mountainstown as did many of his neighbours: eventually these were amalgamated into the Clonghill Hunt which later became the Meath. And so it has gone on until now, when the present generation has decided the moment is right to pass Mountainstown on to another family, perhaps one that will remain in the house for as long as have the Pollocks. It is always sad to see an historic property come on the market, especially in Ireland where relatively few families have stayed in the same place for so long. However, one should remember the words of Disraeli who in 1867 observed, ‘Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant.’ Whatever one’s personal feelings, the proposed departure of the Pollocks from Mountainstown, like that of the Gibbonses before them, is a reflection of that necessary change.
From the Dublin Penny Journal, December 13th 1834:
‘Sir, Permit me through the medium of the Dublin Penny Journal an opportunity of giving the public a brief description of the situation and scenery of Ballysaggartmore, the much improved residence of Arthur Keiley, Esq, situate one mile west of Lismore, on the north side of the river Blackwater. The porter’s lodge at the entrance to the avenue is composed of cut mountain granite or free stone, of a whitish colour, variegated with a brownish strata, which gives the whole a rich and pleasing appearance; it consists of a double rectangular building, in the castellated style, flanked by a round tower at either end, through which is a passage and carriage-way of twelve feet in the centre, over which is a perpendicular pointed arch, enriched with crockets and terminated with a finial; the buildings at either side of the gateway, although similar, form a variety in themselves; and the situation is so disposed as not to be seen until very near the approach; the gate is composed of wrought and cast iron; and is, I will venture to assert, the most perfect gothic structure formed principally of wrought iron, in the kingdom. It was executed by a native mechanic, and cost about one hundred and fifty pounds. Passing onward through the avenue, the road, which is perfectly level, leads through a beautifully romantic wood, neatly planted with all varieties of fir, and other forest timber; and is naturally enriched by a limpid mountain stream, which, after passing over some very considerable rocks, and gliding over the glen, falls immediately into the Blackwater; over this stream, which in winter is often very rapid, stands the bridge of which the prefixed engraving is a correct representation, consisting of three gothic arches, surmounted with richly embrazured battlements. A group of towers, embracing almost every shape and style of Gothic architecture, is erected at either end of the bridge; and the roadway leads under two very pretty obtuse Gothic arches. The greatest novelty in the whole is a round tower, erected on one of the arches. The stone used in the building has an agreeable reddish tint, and is all vermiculated, or, in other words, is a rusticated structure, which gives it somewhat the appearance of antiquity; this and the gate-house, was designed and built under the instruction of Mr John Smyth. Almost adjoining the bridge is a pretty tunnel, through which a road is conducted from the town to the upper grounds; and the avenue, which leads onward to the house, has nothing more to boast of than a continuation of neatly disposed wood and shrubbery.’
At some date in the late 18th or early 19th century land running to some 8,500 acres around Ballysaggartmore, County Waterford was bought from George Holmes Jackson of Glenmore by John Kiely (also sometimes spelled Keily or, in the Dublin Penny Journal, Keiley). On his death in 1808, this property passed to a younger son, Arthur. The best part of the Kiely estates went to Arthur’s elder brother , also called John Kiely, who inherited Strancally, further down the Blackwater river. There he commissioned the building of a new castle from the brothers George and James Pain. John Kiely junior had apparently visited Lough Cutra, County Galway (see Domat Omnia Virtus, January 27th 2014) built a few years earlier by the Pains and accordingly ordered something similar for himself, even though advised that owing to the nature of Strancally’s site it would be necessary ‘to move a mountain in order to make the ground high enough.’ Seemingly it took forty men two years to achieve this enterprise. Arthur Kiely meanwhile, on returning from the Napoleonic Wars in which he had fought, built himself a house in the grounds of Ballysaggartmore. Old photographs indicate this property looked not unlike a great many others of the period, being of two storeys with a bow at one end and a three-storey belvedere over the entrance. According to a later occupant, the building’s principal fault was a lack of internal corridors, meaning it was necessary to pass from one room to the next in order to move about the house. Nevertheless, one has the impression that Arthur Kiely was a man of social aspirations since in 1843 he changed his surname to Kiely-Ussher. (The Usshers were a long-established family in the area to whom the Kielys were related through their mother). This may have been at the instigation of his wife Elizabeth Martin of Ross House, County Galway (a great-aunt of the author Violet Martin). It has always been proposed that the elaborate building programme upon which Arthur Kiely embarked in the 1830s was driven by his wife’s ambition to outstrip her in-laws at Strancally. Of course she might also have been inspired by Lismore Castle where extensive work had already been initiated by the sixth ‘Bachelor’ Duke of Devonshire.
It would seem that the Kielys’ ambitious building works of the early 1830s stretched their financial resources. Thus although there were plans to rebuild the main house in an equally lavish fashion, this did not come to pass. Once the new lodges and castellated bridge were finished, a programme of ‘improvement’ began on the estate, mostly involving the clearance of existing tenants and their modest cottages. And then came the following decade’s years of famine during which remaining tenants were unable to pay rents and found themselves treated harshly by their landlord. Arthur Kiely did not suspend reduce or suspend rent, as had others in his position around the country, but used non-payment as a justification for eviction and the demolition of any dwelling. In May 1847 a reporter from the Cork Examiner arrived in the area to see how people were faring. ‘Arriving at Ballysaggartmore,’ he wrote, ‘an awful sight was before my eyes, I found twelve to fourteen houses levelled to the ground. The walls of a few were still standing but the roofs were taken off, the windows broken in, and the doors removed. Groups of famished women and crying children still hovered round the place of their birth, endeavouring to find shelter from the piercing cold of the mountain blast, cowering near the ruins or seeking refuge beneath the chimneys. The cow, the house, the wearing apparel, the furniture, and even in extreme cases the bed clothes were pawned to support existence. As I have been informed the whole tenantry, amounting with their families to over 700 persons, on the Ballysaggartmore estate, are proscribed.’ By contrast, John Kiely at Strancally Castle was described in the same newspaper as displaying liberality to the local poor ‘commensurate with his extensive property. He has, at present and for the last season, employed the people, is busily and solely engaged in diffusing comfort and plenty among them…’ Understandably, Arthur Kiely’s behaviour at Ballysaggartmore inflamed opinion in the district and soon afterwards an attempt was made to shoot him as he entered the estate through the gates of that smart new lodge: the would-be assasin failed in his mission and fled on foot. A group of local gentry then offered a reward of £100 to anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest of the parties responsible. Seven men were tried, found guilty and deported to Tasmania. If the Kielys were already unpopular in the area, this incident only made them even more so. While circumstances for the country gradually began to improve, the same was not the case for this particular household.
In the aftermath of the famine, the Kielys’ fortunes never recovered, not least because there were no tenants left to provide them with an income. By 1854 Ballysaggartmore was being offered for sale through the Encumbered Estates Court but failed to find a new owner: one suspects the place’s unhappy history deterred potential purchasers. Finally in 1861 it was put on the market again and the main house and surrounding land were bought by William Morton Woodroofe: Arthur Kiely-Ussher died, not much mourned, the following year. The Woodroofes remained at Ballysaggartmore until the early years of the last century when the property was sold to the Hon Claud Anson, a younger son of the second Earl of Lichfield. Hitherto a rancher in Texas, in 1901 the Hon Claud married Lady Clodagh de la Poer Beresford, daughter of the fifth Marquess of Waterford and it is most likely for this reason that the couple chose to settle in her native county. However, they were not to enjoy the place for long because in 1922 Ballysaggartmore House was destroyed by fire. In any case by then the Ansons’ funds had likewise run out, according to Patrick Cockburn (a godson of their daughter) owing to ‘Claud’s overenthusiastic investment in Russian bonds prior to the Revolution.’ The house stood empty and derelict until pulled down some decades later. The front lodges, however, remained occupied, seemingly until the 1970s, after which they too were abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. Now Ballysaggartmore is a public park, with walkways through the woodlands, and all that remains of the Kielys’ architectural and social pretensions are the buildings celebrated in December 1834 by the Dublin Penny Journal. Today they serve as a monument to misplaced ambition.
‘The townland, and chief part of the demesne of Ledwithstown, are in this parish (Shruel), though the dwelling house and offices are in the parish of Kilcommack. It has been long the residence of a respectable family of the name of Ledwith, who possess a considerable property in this neighbourhood.’ A Statistical Account, or Parochial Survey, of Ireland, 1819.
In 1976 Maurice Craig wrote of Ledwithstown, County Longford, ‘there can be few houses of its size in Ireland more thoroughly designed, and with internal decoration so well integrated.’ The house has long been attributed to Richard Castle and is one of three such properties considered to have been designed by the architect, the other two being Gaulstown, County Westmeath (see Gallia Urba est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres, February 24th 2014) and Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (see An Appalling Vista, February 9th last). In their form and composition this triumvirate demonstrates a steadily growing assurance, with Ledwithstown displaying by far the greatest sophistication and thus inclining to the idea that it was the latest, probably dating from the second half of the 1740s (Castle died in 1751). Relatively little is known of the building’s history, other than that until 1911 it was owned, although not always occupied, by the Ledwith family who settled in the area around 1650. Members of that now-vanished class, the gentry, the Ledwiths played their part in local society as Grand Jurors and High Sheriffs but otherwise came little to public notice. The same is true of their former home, which despite its considerable charm, can be passed unnoticed on the public highway: again like Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown lies at the end of an exceptionally long, straight drive.
As with Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown is a three-bay house of two storeys over a semi-raised basement. With all three the main entrance is approached by a flight of stone steps; in this instance, the supporting walls splay out to create the impression of a ceremonial approach to the door. In the case of the other two properties, the doorcase is relatively plain, of cut limestone with a fanlight (that at Gaulstown also has side lights). Ledwithstown’s south-facing doorcase is altogether more elaborate, a cut-stone tripartite Tuscan design incorporating tetrastyle pilasters resting on rusticated base and surmounted by carved pediment. Such an entrance immediately indicates this is a building with greater aspirations than those of its siblings. In other respects, however, the facade of Ledwithstown is closer in spirit to Whitewood than to Gaulstown, sharing the same heavy parapet wall concealing the greater part of a slated roof with a pair of substantial chimneystacks (those at Gaulstown are at either gable end). Likewise Ledwithstown and Whitewood have raised corner quoins which add further gravitas to the building, the most striking differences between the two being that Whitewood’s facade is of cut stone (as opposed to roughcast render over rubble stone) and Ledwithstown’s first floor fifteen-pane sash windows share the same proportions as those one storey below (their equivalents at Whitewood are smaller).
The interior design and decoration of Ledwithstown is much more elaborate than either of the two houses with which it bears comparison. Although measuring just forty-eight by forty-seven feet, it can be considered a country house in miniature, the layout being identical to that found in many larger properties. There are, for example, two staircases, that to the west, of carved wood, serving only the ground and first floors while secondary service stairs of stone to the east also descend to the basement area. Immediately inside the entrance hall are doors to left and right providing access to the former morning room and study; a matching pair to the rear open to the staircases while one in the centre of the back wall leads to the drawing room. Here and in the adjacent dining room, the walls retain their mid-18th century plaster panelling, that in the drawing room being especially fine with a combination of lugged and round topped panels topped by swags or baskets of fruit and shells. Similarly the main staircase, lit by a round-topped window, has timber wainscoting and leads to a panelled first floor landing with egg-and-dart and dentil cornicing; one of the rooms on this level is entirely panelled in wood and others still contain their shallow limestone chimney pieces. The basement likewise keeps much of its original character with a sequence of rooms opening off a central stone-flagged and vaulted central passage.
In 1911 Ledwithstown was bought from the original family by Laurence Feeney. However, following his premature death just six years later, the house was let to a variety of tenants none of whom took care of the property; seemingly a brother and sister who lived there for a while removed all the door and shutter knobs, while another family allowed the chimneys to become blocked and then knocked holes in the walls to permit smoke escape. In 1976 Maurice Craig described Ledwithstown as being ‘unhappily in an advanced state of dilapidation, perhaps not beyond recovery’ and two years later Mark Bence-Jones wrote that the place was ‘now derelict.’ However, around this time the original Laurence Feeney’s grandson, likewise called Laurence, married and he and his wife Mary began to consider the possibility of restoring Ledwithstown.
The couple, together with their children, initiated work on the house and in 1982 they were visited by Desmond Guinness. Soon afterwards the Irish Georgian Society offered its first grant to Ledwithstown, the money being put towards replacing the roof. Further financial aid from the IGS followed, along with voluntary work parties to help the Feeneys in their enterprise. By 1987 Ledwithstown had a new roof and parapet and was once more watertight. Inevitably sections of the reception rooms’ plaster panelling and other decoration had been lost to damp, but enough remained for it to be copied and replaced. The same was true of the main stair hall and sections of the first floor wood panelling, all of which was gradually replaced: when new floors were installed on this level in 1990 surviving panelled walls had to be suspended in mid-air to facilitate the removal of decayed boards. Ledwithstown demonstrates that even the most rundown building can be saved provided the task is approached with enough commitment. Today, more than thirty years after they embarked on their mission, the Feeneys remain happily living in what is, above all else, a family home. So too are both Gaulstown and Whitewood Lodge, making this another trait all three houses share.
The gatelodge at Ballynegall, County Westmeath. Designed by Francis Johnston in 1808 the building provided a perfect introduction to the estate, its features emulating in miniature those of the main house. Tragically some twenty years after its exceptional contents were sold at auction, the house was stripped and gutted in the early 1980s, and is now a roofless shell. The lodge on the other hand remains, a sad remembrance of what once stood but has been lost at the end of the drive.
As a regular visitor to Powerscourt, County Wicklow surely Edmund Burke must have been inspired in his emerging concept of the sublime by the landscape in this part of the country. Certainly aspects of the Powerscourt estate would appeal to many artists, not least the waterfall – the tallest in Ireland – which was painted many times. But the setting of the house, designed in the 1730s by Richard Castle, also proved irresistible, not least to George Barret who was encouraged by Burke to look directly at nature for greater authenticity in his art. On the other hand Barret’s view of Powerscourt, dating from 1760-62 cannot be regarded as altogether authentic: he has exaggerated the height and proportions of the Sugarloaf Mountain in order to provide the work with more drama.