Reflecting on the Irish Country House


The 19th century boathouse on a stretch of the Rye Water at Carton, County Kildare, supposedly built in anticipation of a visit from Queen Victoria. Carton is among the properties I will be discussing next Saturday, October 10th when I speak on the subject of Building, contents, demesne: Understanding the Holy Trinity of the Country House. This will take place during next weekend’s Northern Ireland Heritage Gardens Committee conference, ‘Art and Architecture in Historic Garden Design’ being held at Hillsborough Castle, County Down. Further information on the event can be found on the NIHGC’s website,

When Nobody Cried Stop

How curious that nobody in recent decades has thought to write a monograph on one of Ireland’s most prolific and talented architects: Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh in 1760, Johnston was effectively ‘discovered’ by the city’s primate Richard Robinson who sent him to Dublin to study with the Archbishop’s architect Thomas Cooley. Following the latter’s death in 1784 Johnston took over many of his commissions, not least Rokeby, County Louth which was Robinson’s country seat (see Building on a Prelate’s Ambition, February 4th 2013). Thereafter his career never faltered and demand for his services was unceasing. Among the most famous examples of his work are the General Post Office in Dublin and, on the other side of the city and in completely different mode, the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (of which more in due course). Success allowed him to be singularly generous: appointed second president of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1824 he designed and built the organisation’s premises on Abbey Street (it was one of the casualties of the 1916 Easter Rising, ironically headquartered in another of Johnston’s buildings, the GPO). After he died in 1829 his fabled collection of paintings, sculpture, books, objets d’art and curiosities was unfortunately dispersed. But throughout the country there survive examples of his work and these consistently demonstrate the refinement and assurance of Johnston’s taste. Until recently one of the best examples was Ballynegall, County Westmeath.

Ballynegall dates from 1808 when it was designed for James Gibbons whose family appears to have been involved in banking and other business in Dublin, from whence derived their fortune. Five years earlier he or his father (also called James Gibbons) had bought the estate on which it stands from William Reynell (his forebear Colonel Arthur Reynell had acquired the estate in 172). Seemingly some of the stone from an older property called Castle Reynell was used in the construction of Ballynegall. Evidence of the Gibbons’ affluence is evidenced by the fact the house was renowned for having cost £30,000 to build: an astonishingly substantial figure at the time. James Fraser’s Handbook for Travellers in Ireland (first published 1838) describes Ballynegall as a ‘handsome Grecian mansion’ which ‘accords with the rich and beautiful park around.’ James Gibbons senior died in Cheltenham in 1834, after which the property passed to his son, James junior. He died in 1846 while hunting and since he had no children Ballynegall next passed to a nephew of his wife James William Middleton Berry. On his own death in 1855 the estate was inherited by a cousin Thomas Smyth. Ballynegall remained in the possession of the Smyth family until 1963.

In 1993 Ballnegall was judged by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan to be ‘a most delightful villa by one of Ireland’s most refined designers – a man of European stature.’ Of six bays and two storeys, its west-facing facade was perfectly plain except for a four-column Greek Ionic portico which defined the entrance. The garden front had deep Wyatt windows flanking a broad central bow. A sunken service wing to the north was matched on the other end of the house by a large mid-19th century cast-iron conservatory attributed to Richard Turner (Casey and Rowan propose this replaced an earlier one designed by Johnston), its roof supported by pilaster shafts with lotus capitals. Internally the house was a model of neo-classical restraint, the groundfloor holding an entrance hall divided into two sections by a screen of Ionic columns. This in turn gave access to the drawing room (which benefitted from the east-facing bow), library, dining room and morning room. A staircase at right angles to the entrance hall and screened from it by a further pair of Ionic columns led via a bow-shaped return to the generous first floor bedroom corridor: the basement featured an equally fine, broad corridor running the length of the building. Throughout the house the plasterwork by George Stapleton was simple but exquisite, in particular the guilotte and palmette friezes running below dentil and foliage cornices. Much of the furniture appears to have been made for the house by Mack, Williams & Gibton (the library’s bookcases look to have been especially fine) but other captivating details included the 19th century wallpapers, that in the drawing room being pink and gilt, and stenciled to represent decorative panels and pilasters.

We are fortunate that Ballynegall and its beautiful interiors were recorded in a series of photographs taken in 1961 just a year before the contents were dispersed on the instructions of Captain Michael Smyth during the course of a three-day auction in July 1962. The sale catalogue lists many fine pieces, all scattered: where are they now, and do the present owners know their provenance? The following year the house and estate were likewise sold, after which Ballynegall went through a couple of owners. In 1981 the house itself was ruthlessly stripped of everything that could be taken out: doors, chimney pieces, columns, even the floorboards pulled up for the value of the timber, and then the building unroofed. The portico now adorns the front of the K Club, County Kildare and the Turner conservatory serves as a restaurant at Lyons Village in the same county. The fate of the rest of the fittings is unknown although some of the chimney pieces apparently ended up in England.
As the photographs taken earlier this year and shown here reveal, Ballynegall has been gradually drifting into oblivion ever since that despoliationh. Back in 1993 Casey and Rowan wrote that the fate of Ballynegall was ‘one of the most tragic consequences of the laissez-faire attitude of successive governments towards the architectural inheritance of the State…There can be little satisfaction in contemplating the lacerated fragment of a Fragonard and still less pleasure in a visit to Ballynegall as it is now.’ Visiting the place is indeed a melancholy experience, not just because the building is in such lamentable condition but also because that condition is a reflection of national indifference towards our own collective heritage. Within many people’s lifetime a fine house, a masterpiece of neo-classical refinement designed by one of Ireland’s greatest architects, has willfully and shamefully been permitted to fall into dereliction. It happened because nobody cried stop. It continues to happen for the same reason…


A Capital Idea


Seen on a stand at this year’s Irish Antiques Fair in the RDS, Dublin: the four limestone capitals (one shown above) of the portico at Mote Park, County Roscommon. Demolished more than half a century ago, the house was built for the Crofton family in the 18th century but greatly enlarged around 1816 to the designs of Sir Richard Morrison; most likely the portico was added then. Although only the capitals are currently on show, the entire portico, for many years owned by a now-deceased cleric, still exists and could be reconstructed.

See and Believe


One of the lesser-known episodes of Irish history is the Tithe Wars of the 1830s. Tithes, a payment to support the religious establishment and its clergy, had existed in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic church but from the 16th century onwards, this obligatory contribution went to the Church of Ireland even though its members were always in a minority of the population. The tithe payment was expected to represent ten per cent of the value of certain kinds of agricultural produce. Prior to the Tithe Composition Act of 1823 it was possible to pay tithes in kind instead of in cash. To complicate matters further, a tithe was not payable on all forms of land, and there was even variation from place to place on the types of land subject to tithes. After legislation passed in 1735, for example, pasture (usually held by landowners rather than tenants) was deemed exempt, while tillage land was not. Likewise only certain produce was judged taxable: potatoes, the most widely grown crop for the majority of the population, could be subject to a tithe in one part of the country and not in others. Following the Composition Act tithes were required to be monetary and surveys were carried out in each parish to assess its likely income. Understandably tithes were much resented, and not just by the majority non-Anglican population. Therefore following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 (popularly known as Catholic Emancipation) it was inevitable the payment of tithes would come under attack.

In the aftermath of the 1829 act, and with a rise in numbers of Roman Catholic clergy and the construction of many new churches throughout the country – both of these funded by local communities – opposition to the payment of tithes grew. Opposition was further stimulated by the publication of lists of defaulters and orders being issued collection for the seizure of goods and chattels, most often livestock. The first open resistance occurred in March 1831 in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny where the civil authorities unsuccessfully attempted to seize 120 cattle from the local parish priest Fr Martin Doyle: he had arranged for the people of the area to place their livestock in his care. He had the support of a cousin James Warren Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin who famously wrote of the Irish people to Thomas Spring Rice (then-Secretary of the Treasury), ‘An innate love of justice and of indomitable hatred of oppression is like a gem on the front of our nation which no darkness can obscure. To this firm reality I trace their hatred of tithe. May it be as lasting as their love of justice.’ The revolt against tithes soon spread and led to several ugly incidents: in June 1831, for instance, the Irish Constabulary fired on a crowd resisting the seizure of cattle in Bunclody, County Wexford, killing a number of them (the figure cited seems to vary from twelve to eighteen). Three years later in Rathcormac, County Cork a similar incident occurred (over the non-payment of a tithe valued at 40 shillings) which resulted in at least twelve deaths. Eventually in 1838 the Tithe Commutation Act for Ireland was passed. This reduced the amount payable directly by about a quarter and made the remainder payable in rent to landlords who would then pass on the funds to the relevant authorities. In effect, tithes thus became another form of rental payment but the outcome was an end to open confrontation. Tithes were not abolished until the Irish Church Act of 1869 which disestablished the Church of Ireland.

Astonishingly it was during this troubled period that George de la Poer Beresford, who had been Bishop of Kilmore, County Cavan since 1802, decided to embark on the construction of a new residence for himself and his successors. A bishop’s palace already existed close to the site of the present building; when John Wesley visited in 1787 he declared the earlier house, dating from the early 18th century, ‘is finely situated, has two fronts and is fit for a nobleman.’ But apparently not fit enough for Bishop Beresford who in the mid-1830s commissioned its replacement from the Dublin-born William Farrell. In 1823 the latter had been appointed the Board of First Fruits architect for the Church of Ireland ecclesiastical Province of Armagh (a position he held until 1843) and in this capacity designed a number of churches and other buildings in the region. Accordingly even if Beresford’s wish for a new house seems odd, it made sense for him to use Farrell. One suspects at least part of the reason for this expensive enterprise was so that the bishop could commemorate himself: the tympanum of the façade’s pediment carries the Beresford coat of arms. Writing in 1837, Jonathan Binns harshly passed judgement: ‘The Bishop has lately erected a palce in lieu of the old one. The new palace is built in the Grecian Doric style and covered with Roman cement. It appears too lofty and in other respects is not well proportioned.’ Apparently always known as the See House the building is unquestionably stark, of three storeys over semi-raised basement, its three-bay front is relieved a large limestone porch and flanking Wyatt windows on the ground floor. The garden front is asymmetrical owing to the insertion of an off-centre bay window with another tripartite window to one side but not the other. There are two fine yards, separated by a block with a clock tower.

The dominant feature of the See House’s interior is height: the ground floor ceilings must rise to some twenty feet. Beyond the porch, a square entrance hall has a circular ceiling supported on pendentives. Then comes the staircase hall from which open a series of reception rooms, all characterized by their severity and scale. Doors and chimneypieces shrink to insignificance in these spaces, as do the ceilings’ modest plasterwork and cornicing. The current empty condition of the building exacerbates this feature but it must always have been an echoing barn. The bifurcating staircase further emphasizes the See House’s overblown proportions, rising to a return lit by a vast round-headed window before climbing up to the spacious landing off which run a succession of bedrooms. The top floor, reached via stone service stairs is equally substantial, its centre gallery lit by a wonderful octagonal lantern. One of the rooms on this level, presumably used as a nursery or schoolroom, has walls painted with trees. Otherwise here, as elsewhere in the building, decoration is minimal. The See House appears to have been occupied by Bishops (since 1841 of the combined dioceses of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh) until the beginning of the present century. It is now in private hands and although not at present occupied has been well maintained. Perhaps the last episcopal residence built by an Anglican cleric in Ireland, the See House is an example of the purpose to which at least some of those much-hated tithes were put.



In Full Flight

Mount Hanover, County Meath is believed to date from the start of the 18th century: its name suggests some time around the accession of George I in 1714. Of three storeys over basement, this tall and slender house has a handsome but relatively modest appearance until one steps into the dining room where the ceiling displays an unexpected riot of rococo plasterwork. Scrolls and curlicues abound and in the area occupied by a canted bay are clusters of flowers and fruit, and swooping birds. Although stylistically it shows a lighter touch, given the house’s location not many miles from Drogheda, might this be another example of the handiwork of the stuccodore of St Peter’s, or at least of someone working with him?


A Mere Shell

Above is a photograph taken some time ago of Cloverhill, County Cavan. The original house was built by a branch of the Saunderson family in 1758 but then extended from 1799 onwards to a design by Francis Johnston. It is his work which can be seen here: a two-storey, three bay house with east-facing breakfront entrance bay focussed on a pedimented Ionic portico: on the south side was a bow with Wyatt windows. In 1958 the property was sold by a descendant of the original owners and has since been allowed to fall into ruin. As can be seen below, it is now a roofless shell, the portico seemingly removed more than two decades ago and moved to a house in County Wexford.