‘Our eyes were charmed with the sweetest bottom where, through lofty trees, we beheld a variety of pleasant dwellings. Through a road that looked like a fine terrace walk, we turn to this lovely vale, where Nature assisted by Art, gave us the utmost contentment. It is a colony of Quakers, called by the name of Ballitore.’ Thus wrote an unknown visitor to this part of County Kildare in 1748. Ballitore has long been an area where members of the Religious Society of Friends settled. The sect was established in the late 1640s by the English dissenter George Fox but its tenets quickly found a response in Ireland where the first recorded Friends meeting for worship took place in 1654 at a house in Lurgan, County Armagh belonging to William Edmundson.
Before converting to Quakerism and adopting its pacifist principles, he had been a member of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian Army, as was his almost exact contemporary Colonel John Fennell who like Edmundson moved from England to Ireland. In 1675 Edmundson’s diary records travelling from Wales and attending a meeting at Fennell’s Irish house: ‘The wind coming fair we put to sea again and landed at Cork where Friends were glad of my coming. When I had visited Friends’ meetings in that quarter, I went to John Fennell’s in company with several Friends, where we had a refreshing, heavenly meeting. Here divers Friends from Mountmellick and thereabouts came to meet me, in whose company I returned home, where I met with my wife and children in the same love of God that had made us willing to part one with another for a season for the Lord’s service and truth’s sake.’ By this time Edmundson was settled in Rosenallis, County Laois (not far from another Quaker settlement, the aforementioned Mountmellick) while Fennell had acquired land at Kilcommon on the outskirts of Cahir, County Tipperary.
Despite being in (quietly reflective) opposition to the established church and its practitioners accordingly incurring various penalties, Quakerism soon established a presence in Ireland. Already by 1660, the sect had some thirty meeting houses around the country and their numbers continued to grow through the remainder of the 17th and early years of the 18th centuries. Their minority status meant Quakers often gathered together in settlements such as that at Ballitore. The land on which the village stands was purchased in 1685 by two Quakers John Barcroft and Abel Strettel, supposedly after they had discovered the spot while resting their horse en route from Dublin to Cork. The first planned Quaker settlement in these islands, it quickly grew and some forty years later saw the foundation of a boarding school by the Yorkshire-born Abraham Shackleton. Although run on Quaker principles, it was open to children of all denominations and its most celebrated ex-pupil was the orator, statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.
Not far from Ballitore stands Burtown, originally built for the Quaker Robert Power in 1710 and marked on early maps as Power’s Grove. The house’s original appearance was somewhat different to what can be seen today: of three bays but only one room deep, it seems to have had wings of which just a faint outline remains. In the second half of the 18th century, the property was extended to the rear, notably by the addition of two large bow-fronted rooms one above the other and linked by a splendid staircase accessed via a broad elliptical arch. It is surmised that the ground floor room was intended for dining: it has a charming arched alcove filled with plasterwork representing tendrils of grapevine and flanked by Corinthian-capped pilasters on which sit classical vases. The space seems made for a sideboard which would certainly support the dining room theory. Meanwhile the equally fine room directly above, although now serving as a bedroom, would originally have been a piano nobile drawing room.
Burtown’s plasterwork, probably the work of a travelling stuccadore offering what were then fashionable flourishes, is one of the house’s greatest delights. There is more of it found in the entrance hall, rather Wyatt’esque in style compared with that seen elsewhere in the house. The ceiling is mostly covered in a sequence of swags while the walls have small oval medallions and, a delightfully quirky detail, classical busts on brackets in each of the corners. More work took place to the house in the early 19th century when the front was given its fan-lighted door and the roof those deep eaves so typical of the period.
Traditionally Quakers were renowned for their plain living with all forms of ornamentation eschewed. Burtown’s decoration suggests its owners were perhaps not the strictest adherents of their faith; tellingly William James Fennell who inherited the property in 1890 and was a keen horseman, was ‘asked to leave the Quaker persuasion because of his fondness for driving a carriage with uniform flunkies on the back.’ William James was a direct descendant of Colonel John Fennell and came to live at Burtown through his mother, Jemima Wakefield. The Wakefields had married into the Haughton family who in turn had married members of the Power family, Burtown thus passing several times through the female line. Jemima Wakefield had not expected to come into the property until her brother died after being hit by a stray cricket ball; who knew the game could be so dangerous?
William James Fennell was the great-grandfather of Burtown’s present owner, photographer James Fennell who lives in the house with his wife Joanna and three children. The latest generation has added its own mark while preserving the property’s character and cherishing its history. In particular Burtown’s gardens, which are now open to the public, continue to be expanded and developed. Across three hundred years and four different but inter-related families Burtown has acquired a patina only possible provided there is sufficient time and care. As had that visitor to the area in 1748, today it is still possible to be charmed here when ‘through lofty trees, we beheld a variety of pleasant dwellings.’ Few such houses as Burtown remain in Ireland and it is therefore fortunate that the current owners bring such enthusiasm and commitment to the task of preserving the place into the future.
For more information about Burtown and its gardens, see: www.burtownhouse.ie