Located midway between Slane and Drogheda, and immediately north of the river Boyne Dowth is today known as the site of one of a number of important Neolithic passage tombs in County Meath, others in its immediate vicinity including Newgrange and Knowth. But Dowth deserves to be renowned also for an important mid-18th century house which is due to be auctioned at the end of January.
Dowth Hall dates from c.1760 and was built for John, Viscount Netterville (1744-1826). His family, of Anglo-Norman origin, had been settled in the area since at least the 12th century: in 1217 Luke Netterville was selected to be Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. That religious streak remained with them and come the 16th century Reformation the Nettervilles remained determinedly Roman Catholic. For this adherence some of them suffered greatly; when Drogheda fell to Oliver Cromwell in September 1649 the Jesuit priest Robert Netterville was captured and tortured, subsequently dying of the injuries sustained. Nevertheless, the Nettervilles survived, and even acquired a viscouncy. They also held onto their estates, one of a number of families – the Plunketts of Killeen Castle and the Prestons of Gormanston spring to mind – who retained both their religious faith and their lands, thereby disproving the idea that Catholics automatically suffered displacement during the Penal era.
The sixth Viscount was only aged six on the death of his father, the latter dismissed by Mrs Delaney as ‘A fop and a fool, but a lord with a tolerable estate, who always wears fine clothes’ and otherwise only notable for having been indicted the year before his son’s birth for the murder of a valet (he was afterwards honourably acquitted by the House of Lords).
The young Lord Netterville was raised by his widowed mother and spent much time in Dublin where the family owned a fine house at 29 Upper Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. The old castle in Dowth seems to have fallen into ruin and so a few years after coming of age Viscount Netterville undertook to construct a new house on his Meath estate.
As is so often the case, information about the architect responsible for Dowth Hall is scanty. The common supposition is that the building was designed by George Darley (1730-1817), who had been employed for this purpose by Lord Netterville in Dublin where he was also the architect of a number of other houses. And indeed from the exterior Dowth Hall, rusticated limestone ground floor and tall ashlar first floor with windows alternately topped by triangular and segmental pediments, looks like an Italianate town palazzo transported into the Irish countryside; not least thanks to its plain sides, the house seems more attuned to the streets of Milan than the rich pasturelands of Meath.
The real delight of Dowth lies in its extravagantly decorated interiors, where a master stuccadore has been allowed free hand. The drawing room (originally dining room) is especially fanciful with rococo scrolls and tendrils covering wall panels and the ceiling’s central light fitting suspended from the claws of an eagle around which flutter other birds. None of the other ground floor rooms quite match this boldness but they all contain superlative plaster ornamentation, with looped garlands being a notable feature of the library. Again, the person responsible for this work is unknown, but on the basis of comparative similarities with contemporary stuccowork at 86 St Stephen’s Green in Dublin (on which George Darley is supposed to have worked) Dowth Hall’s decoration is usually attributed to Robert West (died 1790).
Although not as extensive, there is even a certain amount of plasterwork decoration in the main bedrooms on the first floor, which is most unusual. And the house still retains its original chimneypieces (that in the entrance hall even has its Georgian basket grate), along with fine panelled doors and other elements from the property’s original construction. This makes it of enormous importance, since many other similar buildings underwent refurbishment and modernisation in the 19th century during which they lost older features.
There are reasons why Dowth Hall has survived almost unaltered since first built 250 years ago. The sixth Viscount Netterville, somewhat eccentric, fell into dispute with the local priest and was banned from the chapel on his own land; in retaliation, he built a ‘tea house’ on top of the Neolithic tomb from which he claimed to follow religious services through a telescope. But then he seems to have given up living at Dowth and moved back to Dublin. He never married and on dying at the age of 82 left a will with no less than nine codicils. One of these insisted that the Dowth estate go to whoever inherited the title, but it took eight years and a lot of litigation for the rightful heir, a distant cousin, to establish his claim. He did so at considerable cost and so, despite marrying an heiress, was obliged to offer Dowth for sale; the last Lord Netterville, another remote cousin, died also without heirs in 1882 and the title became extinct. Meanwhile Dowth was finally bought from the Chancery Court in 1850 by Richard Gradwell, younger son of a wealthy Catholic family from Lancashire. His heirs continued to live in the house for a century, but then sold up in the early 1950s when the place changed hands again. It did so one more time around twenty years later when acquired by two local bachelor farmers who moved into Dowth Hall. Following their respective deaths (the second at the start of last year), a local newspaper reported that the siblings had gone ‘to Drogheda every Saturday night, would attend the Fatima novena at 7.30pm then would walk over West Street to see what was going on, although they never took a drink or went to pubs.’
Now Dowth Hall is for sale, and there must be concern that it finds a sympathetic new owner because the house is in need of serious attention. It comes with some 420 acres of agricultural land, which means a sale is assured but that could be to the building’s disadvantage: it might fall into further desuetude if the farm alone was of interest to a purchaser. Too many instances of this have occurred in the past and it must not be allowed to happen here. One feels there ought to be some kind of vetting process to ensure prospective buyers demonstrate sufficient appreciation of the house. Only somebody with the same vision and flair as the sixth Lord Netterville should be permitted to acquire Dowth Hall.
This last image is taken from Georgian Mansions in Ireland by Thomas Sadleir and Page Dickinson published in 1915.
*From a poem by John Betjeman, written after he had visited Ireland as an Oxford undergraduate and met the last surviving members of the family responsible for building Dowth Hall.