The popularity of the gothic style for domestic buildings in early 19th century Ireland owed something to a desire among landed families to suggest longer residence here than was often actually the case. The Levinges, for example, only came to this country in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars when the Derbyshire-born lawyer William Levinge was appointed Irish Solicitor-General and Speaker of the House of Commons; he later became Attorney-General and Lord Chief Justice. As a reward for his services, in 1704 he received a baronetcy and duly became Sir Richard Levinge of High Park in the County of Westmeath.
Today the property is known as Knockdrin, built close to a late mediaeval castle once belonging to the Tuite family; it was their lands that Sir Richard acquired and on which he built a new house. However by the early 19th century this had fallen into disrepair and so the sixth baronet, also called Sir Richard Levinge, embarked on a rebuilding programme that would give him a splendid gothic castle and all the links with an ancient past this implied.
It is not known for certain who was responsible for the design of Knockdrin Castle. Sir Richard Morrison produced a design for the entrance front but while elements of this were incorporated into the eventual building it cannot be attributed to him. Instead Knockdrin is assigned to James Shiel, believed to have trained in the office of Francis Johnston an architect who created some of the finest gothic revival castles in Ireland, not least Charleville, County Offaly. Like Charleville, Knockdrin’s late-mediaeval trappings are lightly worn: this is essentially a Georgian country house in fancy dress. The entrance front presents a degree of asymmetry, primarily thanks to a long castellated curtain wall leading to a two-storey gatehouse providing access to the service courtyard. But the battlemented main block, of rubble limestone with dressed window surrounds and featuring a wide fanlit doorway flanked by square towers, has only superficial quirks, such as a slim turret on the south corner. And notice how standard rectangular sash windows are used on the upper storeys.
A similarly familiar sense of order can be found inside where once more the usual forms are followed, albeit decked out in gothic flummery. As in so many Irish houses the rear of the entrance hall has a screen but in this instance it is composed of three pointed arches supported on slender cluster-shafted columns. Doors to either side open onto the library and dining room (the latter now regrettably divided in two). But another door provides access to Knockdrin’s most striking feature: a top-lit staircase with the stairs (like the doors throughout the building) made of carved oak. The elaborate first floor is decorated with a gallery of fluted shafts and sequence of ogee-headed niches around the walls. Abundant light provided by a central glazed dome helps to create a fluid, elegant space possessing none of the heaviness customarily associated with the Gothic Revival movement. On the other hand, despite high ceilings emblazoned with plasterwork of Tudor roses and the like, the enfilade of ground floor reception rooms – ballroom, drawing room, library – is less distinguished, although a line of full-length, south-facing windows means that like the staircase hall they are exceptionally bright.
Knockdrin remained in the possession of the Levinge family until the last century. Within weeks of the outbreak of the First World War the tenth baronet, another Sir Richard Levinge, was dead after being hit in the neck by a bullet as he walked along a trench at Ypres. His widow and only son moved to England and the house was let to various tenants; at one point it served as a school and in the early 1940s was occupied by members of the Irish army who inevitably inflicted a certain amount of damage on the building. Finally in 1943, the greater part of the estate having already been broken up by the Land Commission, the castle and surrounding land was sold by the Levinges, thereby ending a link of almost 250 years. The present owners bought the place in 1961 and have cared for it ever since. One should not try to make exaggerated claims for Knockdrin. It is certainly not a house of the first importance, but can be considered noteworthy as an example of the transition from classicism to gothic, when the latter was still a style and not yet an ideology and the former’s principles survive beneath a veneer of ornamentation. Below is a portrait of Sir Richard, the sixth baronet who commissioned the house. The picture was painted by the minor English artist Thomas Shew in 1828 and includes a view of Knockdrin, presumably imaginary since Shew never came to Ireland.