The Irish term ‘strong farmer’ refers not to the title holder’s physical strength but to the size of his land holding. Until sequential legislation in the late 19th/early 20th centuries collectively known as the Land Acts, the greater part of this country lay in the possession of a relatively small number of wealthy families, their tenants obliged to survive on tiny holdings of just a couple of acres. Tenantry leasing larger, more economically viable plots of land came to be known as strong farmers and their fiscal strength allowed them to build bigger houses than the usual one- or two-roomed thatched cottage.
Rush Hill in County Roscommon is just such a house. This has never been a particularly fashionable, or indeed affluent, part of the country but it used to sustain many more such properties; of the four ‘gentlemen’s seats’ identified in the immediate parish by Samuel Lewis in his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Rush Hill is the only one still standing. The core of the house dates from c.1700. By that date, and for the next 200-odd years, much of the region was owned by the King family, beneficiaries of extensive land acquisitions made in the first decades of the 17th century by an ancestor, Edward King, Anglican Bishop of Elphin.
Rush Hill’s clerical connections are frequent. Within a century of Bishop King taking possession of the land on which the house stands, it was leased together with some 400 acres to a relation of his descendants, the Rev. George Blackburne who became rector of the local parish and built a new church at the end of what was effectively Rush Hill’s drive. Described by Lewis as ‘a neat, plain building with a small spire,’ this survived an ever-dwindling congregation until demolished in 1971. The graveyard survives.
Unmarried, Blackburne left control of the property to his nephew William Devenish; generations of the same family remained there as major tenant farmers and minor Protestant gentry for the next 150 years. In 1884 the last of the line to live at Rush Hill, Robert Devenish gave up the tenancy and two years later it was let to George Acheson whose heirs continued to live there until 1943, during which time they acquired the freehold of the house and 109 acres from the King estate. Next it passed into the hands of a local farmer but after fifty years the house was abandoned and began to slide into decay, a condition only partially arrested when a Dutch family bought the place in 1997. Ten years ago Rush Hill was acquired by its present owners who ever since have been engaged in diligently restoring house and grounds.
By the time they assumed responsibility for the place, Rush Hill was in poor shape; it had not been rewired since the mid-1950s when electricity was first introduced to the premises, the only sink was in the kitchen, supplied with water via a rubber hose through a window, and the only lavatory was broken. Almost all the windows needed to be replaced, as did many floorboards and parts of the roof, while the majority of original fittings like chimney pieces had long since been sold or stolen. Likewise outdoors the gardens were overgrown and the yard buildings in a state of total dereliction.
Given the scale of work required, inevitably it has taken time to achieve the present results. Looking at Rush Hill today, it is hard to imagine the property’s shambolic state a mere ten years ago. While most of the finance for this enterprise has come from the owners’ own resources, they did receive assistance on a couple of occasions from the Heritage Council; one worries the organisation may not be able to provide such support for much longer, given the present government’s apparent determination to emasculate it.
Rush Hill is precisely the kind of property that deserves help from state agencies, especially when relatively small sums can make a substantial difference. Too often, because the national mindset is fixed on the extremes of Big House and peasant cottage, the idea that our architectural heritage might include other kinds of domestic building tends to be overlooked. Not being one of the region’s more significant properties, Rush Hill could easily have slipped out of existence, like the other three ‘gentlemen’s seats’ in the parish, had it not been rescued just in time. The evolution of Rush Hill took place over three centuries; the core five-bay house probably began as just one-room deep and without the lop-sided extensions to either side of the central block or indeed the latter’s projecting groundfloor bows. Gradually the house grew to reflect successive owners’ affluence and aspirations until achieving its present form. In the process, it came to represent one lesser-known but still important strand of our nation’s history. Without Rush Hill’s patient preservation we should all be the poorer.