In 1751 an impoverished but well-connected Anglican clergyman came to Ireland and within a year had been consecrated as Bishop of Killala. Over the next decade he advanced through two further sees before being appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1765. Richard Robinson (1709-94) was the sixth son of a Yorkshire landowner and as such it was inevitable that after graduating from Christ Church, Oxford he should have considered the Church as a lucrative career. Few of his clerical contemporaries, however, acquired so much or spent so lavishly.
He arrived in Dublin as chaplain to the then-Lord Lieutenant, Lionel Sackville, Duke of Dorset, whose support helped secure that first episcopacy. But it is clear that Robinson was always destined to make a mark. After his death it was said that during his time there Armagh had been converted ‘from an unsightly crowd of mud cabins into a handsome city of stone dwellings.’ Among the buildings for which he was responsible are the public library, the Royal School, the barracks, a county gaol, the public infirmary and, most famously, in 1793 the Armagh Observatory for which he created an endowment. Long before that date, finding the Archbishop’s residence unsatisfactory, he had a new one built for him on a 300 acre demesne, together with stables, farmyard and a chapel. No wonder Methodism’s founder John Wesley accused him of being more interested in building that in the care of souls.
Robinson behaved like a continental prince-bishop. In his memoirs the playwright Richard Cumberland, whose father was Bishop of Clonfert, recalled accompanying the Archbishop to Armagh Cathedral one Sunday: ‘He went in his chariot with six horses, attended by three footmen behind… On our approach the great western door was thrown open, and my friend (in person one of the finest men that could be seen) entered, like another Archbishop Laud, in high prelatical state, preceded by his officers and ministers of the church conducting him in files to the robing-chamber and back again to the throne.’
Robinson’s lofty aspirations – the reliably-waspish Horace Walpole judged him ‘a proud but superficial man’ – led him to seek secular as well as religious preferment and in 1777 he was created Baron Rokeby in the Irish peerage. Some years later he acquired an estate in Marlay, County Louth and here built a house which was given the name Rokeby Hall (www.rokeby.ie). By so doing he evoked the Robinson family’s Yorkshire seat which his older brother Sir Thomas, an amateur architect but professional spendthrift, had been obliged to sell in 1769. So the new Rokeby in Ireland was intended not just to serve as a country retreat but also to replace a lost estate and provide an alternative dynastic base: although the Archbishop never married, there were several potential heirs among his siblings’ offspring.
As his architect for the house, Robinson chose Thomas Cooley who had already been responsible for many of the new buildings in Armagh, including the Archbishop’s Palace. Unfortunately Cooley died in 1784 and so his plans were handed over to the youthful Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh, Johnston’s abilities had been noticed by Robinson who sent him as an apprentice to Cooley in 1778. Nevertheless, although the younger architect oversaw Rokeby’s construction surviving plans show just how much its layout is as originally devised by Cooley.
Rokeby’s limestone exterior looks somewhat severe, the facade relieved only by the slightly advanced three centre bays with first-floor Ionic pilasters beneath a pediment. To the immediate right and reticently recessed is a long extension which might appear to be a later addition but is in fact contemporaneous with the main house and originally contained many of the necessary services such as a large kitchen. The main house is often described as being two-storey over basement. However there is a splendid attic storey tucked behind the parapet and centred on a striking circular room lit by glazed dome; as a result of an acoustic trick when you stand directly beneath this your sense of hearing is affected.
While obviously not a small house, Rokeby is by no means palatial and the appeal of its interiors lies in their neo-classical refinement devoid of superfluous ornamentation. This is evident in the entrance hall where the space is simply but effectively divided by the intervention of two Doric columns. There is relatively little plasterwork decoration, except on the main staircase and the upper landing. The latter is one of the finest features of the house: a circular lobby off which open various bedrooms and dressing rooms, every second door topped by an oculus providing light for this space.
These rooms look to have retained their original chimneypieces, sadly not the case on the groundfloor. On his death Archbishop Robinson left Rokeby to a nephew, John Robinson, Archdeacon of Armagh (created a baronet in 1819) but he fled Ireland after his father-in-law, Captain James Spencer of Rathangan House, County Kildare, was killed by rebels during the 1798 Rising. Rokeby was then rented to a sequence of tenants; James Brewer’s The Beauties of Ireland published in 1826 noted that the house ‘is now, we believe, in the hands of a farmer, and the chief apartments are let furnished to casual inmates.’ Only some time after Archdeacon Robinson’s death in England in 1832 did his son Sir Richard return to Rokeby and presumably embark on a programme of refurbishment necessary after almost half a century of neglect. Hence the chimneypieces in the main rooms are of a later date as are some doors, evident in the different disposition of their panelling.
Descendants of the Robinsons remained in possession, although not necessarily in occupation of Rokeby until the middle of the last century, after which the house passed through a variety of hands often with unfortunate consequences. When the present owners bought the place in 1995, for example, the library had been stripped of its bookcases and divided in two with one half used as a kitchen.
Over the past eighteen years, a process of gradual restoration has taken place at Rokeby, driven by just the right balance of enthusiasm, commitment and ongoing research into the house’s history. At the moment, the owners are undertaking the restoration of Rokeby’s most notable 19th century addition: a substantial conservatory designed c.1870 by Richard Turner. This is due to be reinstated later in the spring. One feels confident that even if members of his family are no longer in residence, Archbishop Robinson would be delighted to see the country house he commissioned so well maintained and loved.
A mezzotint produced in 1764 by Richard Houston and based on a portrait of Richard Robinson painted by Joshua Reynolds the previous year and now in Christ Church, Oxford. Reynolds painted Robinson three times and a version of the last of these hung in Rokeby until the last century. Today it is in the collection of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham.