In February 1879 Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, popularly known then and since as Sisi, arrived in County Meath. Unhappily married, restless and inclined to melancholy, she found distraction in hunting and it was this sport which brought her to Ireland. Throughout her six-week stay in the country she followed the hounds almost daily with the Ward Union, the Meath and the Kildare Hunts, always accompanied by the most proficient horseman of his generation Captain William ‘Bay’ Middleton, widely rumoured to be her lover. Her own animals not proving suitable for the Irish terrain, local owners lent or sold the Empress their mounts although the Master of the Meath Hunt Captain Robert Fowler of Rahinstown was heard to expostulate ‘I’m not going to have any damned Empress buying my daughter’s horse.’ Nevertheless before her departure, Elisabeth presented a riding crop to Fowler: it was sold by Adam’s of Dublin in September 2010 for €28,000.
During her 1879 visit and on a second occasion the following year the Empress stayed in an immense baroque palace that would not have looked out of place among the foothills outside Vienna. This was Summerhill, one of Ireland’s most remarkable houses the loss of which, as the Knight of Glin once wrote, ‘is probably the greatest tragedy in the history of Irish domestic architecture.’
Summerhill was constructed for the Hon. Hercules Langford Rowley who in 1732 married his cousin Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Clotworthy Upton. It is generally agreed that work on the house began around this date, perhaps to commemorate the union. Also, although impossible to prove absolutely, the most widespread supposition is that Summerhill’s architect was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. There are echoes in its design of Vanbrugh in whose office Pearce is thought to have trained. Indeed writing of the building in 1752 the Anglican clergyman and future Bishop of Meath Richard Pococke specifically described it as ‘a commanding Eminence, the house is like a Grand Palace, but in the Vanbrugh Style.’
There was already a residence in the immediate vicinity, the ruins of which survive to the present. Known as Lynch’s Castle, it is a late 16th century tower house probably occupied up to the time of Summerhill’s construction. The position selected for Rowley’s new house could scarcely have been better – the 19th century English architect C.R. Cockerell thought ‘few sites more magnificently chosen – the close of a long incline so that the gradual approach along a tree-lined avenue created the impression of impending drama. Finally one reached the entrance front, a massive two-storey, seven-bay block the central feature of which were four towering Corinthian columns, the whole executed in crisply cut limestone. On either side two-storey quadrants swept away from the house towards equally vast pavilions topped by towers and shallow domes.
We must imagine the original interiors of Summerhill to have been as superb as its exterior since little record of them survive. The house was seriously damaged by fire in the early 19th century and thereafter successive generations of the Rowley owners – it had passed to a branch of the Taylours of Headfort, the first of whom was elevated to the peerage as Baron Langford in 1800 after voting in favour of the Act of Union – never seem to have had sufficient funds to oversee a comprehensive refurbishment. In fact in 1851 the estate was offered for sale. However, some work was done on the house, including a new main staircase, in the 1870s, not long before Summerhill was taken by the Empress Elisabeth. A handful of photographs, reproduced in the invaluable Irish Georgian Society Records of 1913 and shown above give us an idea of the house’s decoration, not least that of the double-height entrance hall with its then-compulsory potted palms (just as the wall above the stairs carries an equally inevitable reproduction of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna). We know the drawing room and small dining room both contained elaborate plasterwork and there were clearly some splendid chimneypieces. The IGS Records also lists many significant paintings in the main rooms.
Before the end of the 19th century the large gothic mausoleum likewise built by Hercules Langford Rowley in 1781 not far from the house had fallen into a ruinous state; some of its exterior walls survive, along with a handful of their curious arched niches. Originally it contained a large memorial carved by Thomas Banks and commemorating the death of a beloved granddaughter, the Hon Mary Pakenham (Rowley’s daughter had married Lord Longford, another of whose children Catherine would in turn marry the Hon Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington). The Banks memorial was rescued from the mausoleum and moved into the main house at Summerhill, there seemingly safe from any damage.
On the night of 4th February 1921 the Rowleys were away but five staff remained in the house. When a knock came on the back door, the butler refused to open it but shortly afterwards he heard the door being knocked down. He and the others escaped through an exit in the basement and walked towards the farm; turning around, they saw flames rapidly spreading through the house which by morning was left a smoking shell.
It has never been ascertained who was responsible for the burning of Summerhill or why it was attacked in this way, but most likely as elsewhere during the same period it was perceived as representing the old regime and therefore a target for republicans. Afterwards, like other house owners whose property had suffered a similar fate, the Rowleys applied to the new Free State government for compensation, asking for £100,000 to rebuild Summerhill; initially they were offered £65,000 but by April 1923 this had been cut to £16,775 with the condition that at least £12,000 of the sum had to be spent on building some kind of residence on the site, otherwise only £2,000 would be given.
The compensation figure was later raised to £27,500 with no obligation to build but by then the Rowleys left the country (one member of the family had already declared ‘Nothing would induce me to live in Ireland if I was paid to do so…’). For the next thirty-five years Summerhill stood an empty shell. The late Mark Bence-Jones who saw the house during this period later wrote, ‘Even in its ruinous state, Summerhill was one of the wonders of Ireland; in fact like Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, it gained added drama from being a burnt-out shell. The calcining of the central feature of the garden front looked like more fantastic rustication; the stonework of the side arches was more beautiful than ever mottled with red lichen; and as the entrance front came into sight, one first became aware that it was a ruin by noticing daylight showing through the front door.’ In 1947 Maurice Craig visited the site. His wonderfully atmospheric photographs from that time corroborate Bence-Jones’ description.
Seaton Delaval still stands, but Summerhill is no more. In 1957 the house was demolished, apparently without any objection. Today the site is occupied by a bungalow of the most diminutive proportions surrounded by evergreens which thereby obscure the view which made this spot so special. The difference in scale and style between the original house and its replacement would be hilarious was the loss of Summerhill not so tragic. The village at its former entrance gates gives visitors no indication that close by stood one of Ireland’s greatest architectural beauties. Indeed one suspects local residents themselves are mostly unaware of what they have lost since there is scant evidence of concern for the welfare of other old buildings in the vicinity.
If Summerhill still stood it could be a significant tourist attraction, bringing visitors to this part of the country, not least from Austria and surrounding countries where the Empress Elisabeth enjoys near-cult status. In other words, what went with the house was not just an important piece of Ireland’s architectural heritage but also the opportunity for local employment and income. It is typical, if perhaps the worst instance, of Ireland’s failure to appreciate the potential of her historic buildings, as well as their inherent aesthetic qualities. I think it was Bence-Jones who once called Summerhill Ireland’s Versailles but a more apt comparison would be with Marly, another vanished treasure now known only through a handful of images. As Shelley wrote in 1818,
‘”Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare…’
Destruction of such tragic proportions – but thank you for such detailed information and photographs.
Thank you for your comment. The loss of Summerhill really is tragic, since as well as the house and its decoration went the contents including seemingly paintings by the likes of Batoni and Guardi which might otherwise today still remain in the country.
Would you know if the stucco-work was executed by the Lafranchini brothers or was it before their time?
I am from Rathmolyon, just a few miles away. I had no idea the land by ‘Lynchs Castle’ had such huge significance. And I wish my late Father was alive to tell me any details he may have known. We went there as children once in a picnic in the 1980’s but I only came across its detailed history when looking up the burning of Big Houses online. Its heart breaking. The burning of these houses and also certain railway lines never recovered. But at that time, it seemed like a way to be heard..such is the tragedy of war. I find it terribly sad.
Thanks for writing this. Really interesting, and pictures are fantastic. Good to see Pococke and Cockerell get a mention!
Thanks Michael, your support always appreciated.
What a loss – even the ruin gone! Prompted by your post to search out a biography of the gorgeous and unhappy Sissi.
Yes, a most unhappy life. A few years after she visited Ireland, her son Rudolf killed himself and his mistress at Mayerling and then some time later Elisabeth died at the hand of an assassin…
I wonder what happened to Clotworthy Upton? With a name like that it probably suffered a similar fate. How sad a about the building obviously, but also the pictures by Batoni and Guardi. Gosh, the more I read your blog I understand how much work needs to be done to preserve the architectural heritage of Ireland. I suppose history was against the idea of it, but even in France after the revolution, many of the great chateaux and estates are there to see in their finery.
Sorry, my prose must have been confusing. Clotworthy Upton was a person – the estate was (and still is) called Castle Upton in County Antrim for which Robert Adam produced designs. Unfortunately his work in the main house was overhauled in the 1830s and little remains but the Adam-designed stable block is still there.
And yes, persuading the good people of Ireland to appreciate their architectural heritage is a work in progress…
Thank you for this post. I’m not at all familiar with Irish country house history so to hear of them possibly being burned down due to political tensions is fascinating.
Oh my goodness, the number of Irish houses of note that were destroyed due to political tensions runs into hundreds and includes many others almost as fine as was Summerhill. But far more were subsequently lost not by being set on fire but by being intentionally pulled down or allowed to fall down. The active hostility that used to be directed towards our architectural heritage has, by and large, gone but is replaced by indifference which, very unfortunately, has proven just as corrosive and damaging.
Beautifully written. A well illustrated argument leading to a compelling conclusion.
When I first came to Africa to conduct humanitarian mine clearance in Moçambique and Angola twenty years ago, in spite of the horrors I witnessed, I could not help feeling a little remorse at the wanton destruction of some fine estates built in the Portuguese style. After the Portuguese fled en masse in 1975, anything redolent of colonialism was smashed. Fine houses, furniture, paintings, even sanitory ware. Imagine the sadness seeing walls completely covered by individually hand crafted and painted tiles pock marked by bullet holes.
When the war died down with the death of the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, I was tasked by expatriate family members to find out what had happened to their estates and, more importantly, those family members who had stayed behind to ‘ride the storm’. Very sad standing there in front of a pile of rocks being told by former estate workers, ‘They were killed so when the rebels left, we buried them here’.
Most poignant of all was the estate workers asking me if there was any chance the heirs would come back and rebuild the estate so they could have jobs and go back to the happy times.
Seeing all this and the war raging around me, I began to understand what ‘Year Zero’ meant for a country.
As soon as I have time, I have to go to Malange to look for the remains of two Italian plantation owners. Already aged in 1975, they sent their offspring back to Italy and nothing further was heard from them.
This is the first time in two weeks that I have actually been able to load your blog, let alone comment on it.
What a fascinating response to my piece! I have already directed someone else to your reply as it is terribly interesting (and poignant) and demonstrates that the hostility to colonial buildings in a post-colonial society (or non-society in Angola’s case at the time of which you write) is universal. Also that the destruction of these buildings has all sorts of consequences for the local community, not least the loss of work.
Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write; as I say, your comments are of great interest.
Very interesting post… I’ve since taken to google maps… Still visible are the bones of a fine entrance and avenue, and the familiar carefully planned village green area outside. Despite the economic decline that saw the demise of The Big House and the political problems that contributed to their subsequent annihilation, there’s no denying the planned beauty of the towns and villages they anchored…. Adare and Strokestown, among others… But whats truly amazing from the perspective of google’s satellite is the bolshy incongruity of that bungalow and the protective fort like circle of conical evergreens!…
No need to look at google maps; if you visit the village of Summerhill, you can see the evidence for yourself. The entrance gateposts (surprisingly modest for what lay at the end of the avenue) remain, altho’ no evidence of the lodge(s) that presumably lay beyond, and so does the long straight ascend to where the house stood – and where no is the preposterous little bungalow with its obscuring conifers (perhaps they were put in place to spare its blushes over being so very ordinary).
Incidentally, I don’t think Summerhill village was ever of much consequence, but it does retain the green down its spine and in line with the avenue beyond the gates. It never had a C of I church or minister because, unusually, the Rowleys were Presbyterian (Jonathan Swift, rector of the nearby parish of Laracor before his elevation to the Deanery of St Patrick’s was not terribly happy with this state of affairs).
excellent piece, another grand old house just down the road “Agher palace” saw a similar fate, blown up by the land commission because it was too expensive to heat.
It was called “Agher Pallis”, not “Palace”.
Thanks for your comment. Actually I have seen both spellings in old documents, and indeed also Agherpallice; there was less rigour about such matters of old.
I visited the site of Summerhill House some years ago, having become interested in the story of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria and her tenure of the house during the hunting season in 1879, some nineteen years before her assassination by the Italian anarchist Luigi Luccheni at Geneva. To my complete amazement, the present owners of the small bungalow described in your excellent article seemed completely oblivious to the fact that the big house had once stood where their farm sheds have been erected, much less the Empress’s visit itself. Thanks once again for taking the time to write such an interesting and informative piece on the house, and also for the inclusion of what appear to be several quite rare photographs of both the exterior and interior. I look forward to reading more when you have had the chance to add to the web site.
Thank you for making contact. Yes, the life of the Empress Elizabeth was not a happy one I fear, and her visits to Ireland were brought to an end by the respective British and Austro-Hungarian governments, both of which disliked the enthusiasm with which she was greeted in this country.
And it is quite extraordinary that the immense house that once stood at Summerhill – for several centuries – should now be almost entirely forgotten, other than by those of us concerned for the welfare of the national architectural heritage. But one hopes that by writing on the subject a greater awareness will result, and a better appreciation of what remains…
Excellent post, but I fear the reference to the ‘preposterous little bungalow’ smacks a little of the ‘hostility’ this blog is ostensibly trying to dispel.
Actually what this site attempts to do is increase aesthetic appreciation of Ireland’s architectural heritage (or what remains of it). In that context, the reference to a ‘preposterous little bungalow’ is appropriate given what previously stood on the site. The same bungalow might not be deemed preposterous in another setting.
Once again the barbaric serfs won. Pity.
I’m from Trim, which is just down the road. I always knew SummerHill house had existed, but I had no idea of the scale of it and what a stunning piece architecture it was. Such a horrible loss.
I have recently been researching into my mothers side of the family (Langford) and it has brought me here to your site. I was born and raised in Hamilton Ontario Canada, so I am having a bit of a time figuring out on Google maps exactly where SummerHill was located. My sister and I are in the talk stage of planning a trip to Ireland to see where our ancestors were from, but there is a lot more information we want to know to make the trip productive. Can you help me pin down the location exactly and any other tidbits you might want to share. Thanks so much!
Thank you for getting in touch. Summerhill is actually quite easy to find: it lies in County Meath on the road between Trim and Kilcock, so you will see it on google maps. Another useful source for you is the Irish Architectural Archive (www.iarc.ie). Best wishes in your search…
Thanks for the quick response. I actually found the village of SummerHill but was trying to find exactly where the original SummerHill house once stood. I read about some circular planted trees and a bungalow was built where the estate once was. I tried to attach a screenshot but was unsuccessful so here is a description: R156 where it meets up with New Rd there is a gated, treed lane that goes south to a house with trees planted in a semi circle.(exact coordinates:53°28’28.1″N 6°43’52.8″W) Just above and to the right there is another circular array of trees but there does not seem to have a laneway to it. (Exact Coordinates:53°28’35.8″N 6°43’42.5″W)
I have a copy of a book called Langford, Westman and Related Families that was published here in Canada in 1999 by a relative that spend most of her adult life researching the family history. She then spent 5 years with the help of a publisher to bring her room full of binders of information into the form of a textbook. There is reference in the book that the estate passed through the female Langford line into the Rowley family which resulted in a descendant who became Viscount of Langford Lodge and eventually Baron Langford of SummerHill. Langford Lodge was near Crumlin in County Antrim. Sadly it was demolished in 1959.
Thank you for the website for the Irish Architectural Archive. I will have plenty to research there as well.
Kindest regards, Catherine
Fantastic article on Summerhill, i am in the early stages of a possible recreation of the 2 La Franchini ceilings , just wondering do you know of any photos of the interior when it stood as a ruin.
Warfare and natural disasters aside it is truly horrendous what angry, jealous mobs have done in Ireland to their OWN cultural sites! I have studied a lot of Irish ruins and lamented each time but Summerhill is almost Versailles. Even here in France they left THAT standing although a lot more was destroyed. I used to live near a village called La Ferté Vidame where stood the ruins of the chateau of Le Duc de Saint Simon. It stood in a field barely visible behind weeds and trees and wild ivy and was surrounded by cows as it belonged to a farmer. Today they have cleared it and made it into a tourist attraction with the lodge as a small museum. It is important de keep even a ruin but it would have been so much better to have the buildings as they were. I recently studied the Palais des Tuilleries in Paris, is was burnt but stood in very good condition, easily restorable but they demolished it all the same in 1882, a tragedie, one more.
Thanks for the small but valuable information posted here on the most beautiful Summerhill house which tragically we no longer have any evidence of. Summerhill wasnt quite as big as either Carton in Maynooth or Castletown in Leixlip or as long as Rusborough in Wicklow but at about 40,000 square foot in size it was certainly one of the biggest and without doubt the best , most dramatic and most beautiful of them all in Ireland and the likes of which could never be built here again.. It was also described by leading architects at the time as being on the most beautiful site they had ever seen. So tragic that it and too many others were burnt to the ground by a bunch of idots who considered themselves great patriots who were doing something great for the good of Ireland and hard to believe that none of the locals know anything about it. I have a nice copy of the front elevation photo of the house here at home and would love to see some more if there are any more out there please get in touch. I live in Skryne which is not too far from Summerhill and know the place well and where exactly the house was situated. Nothing at all remains of it today theres not even a stone in the ground which is remarkable.What a terrible loss to our culture and heritage. The land commission knocked it all in 1957 without any objections although the basement should be still there along with the escape tunnel which came out the far side of the Kilcock road.
I’ve often wondered about that “road” on Google maps that exits onto the Kilcock road. Thanks for the explanation.
[…] of which are still standing and only one, Summerhill, County Meath, discussed here in the past (see My Name is Ozymandias « The Irish Aesthete) has been been entirely lost. Of the others, two – Castletown, County Kildare and Rathfarnham […]
From the Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald
When they arrived at the scene of destruction, those who had started the fire had long disappeared, and all they could do was hug their children and join those huddled together there speechless and paralysed with horror like shipwrecked survivors on a raft. Not till daybreak did the fire abate and the black contours of the burnt-out shell stand out against the sky. The ruin, said Mrs Ashbury, was subsequently demolished. That was before my time, and I never saw it. They say two or three hundred country houses were burnt down during the civil war, regardless of whether they were relatively modest properties or stately homes such as Summerhill, where the Austrian Empress Elisabeth had once been so happy. To the best of my knowledge, said Mrs Ashbury, people were never harmed by the rebels. Evidently burning the houses down was the most effective way of driving out those families who were identified, rightly or wrongly, with the detested rule of the English. In the years after the end of the civil war, even those who had survived unscathed left the country if they possibly could. The only ones who stayed on were those who had no livelihood except what they derived from their estates. Every attempt to sell the houses and land was doomed to failure from the very start, because in the first place there were no buyers far and wide, and in the second, even if a purchaser had appeared, one could hardly have lived in Bournemouth or Kensington for more than a month on the proceeds. At the same time, nobody in Ireland had any idea how they could possibly go on.
Summerhill was the mansion where in 1824, still a student, the later Sir William Rowan Hamilton met Catherine Disney, the first of his three great loves. Hamilton later married happily, but Catherine was forced to marry someone she did not love, a very sad story.
One of Hamilton’s descriptions from within the house gives a good impression of how big it was, https://archive.org/details/lifeofsirwilliam01gravuoft/page/188, another, that it was surrounded by ‘dark woods’.
[…] County Meath has featured here before (see My Name is Ozymandias « The Irish Aesthete) and is well-known as one of Ireland’s great lost country houses. But its namesake in County […]