Driving along a minor road in south County Kildare, one’s eye is caught by the sight of ruins rising high above a field of maize. These roofless blocks were once the stables attached to and now all that remain of Belan, seat of the Stratford family, Earls of Aldborough. That Belan was once rather splendid cannot be doubted: in 1786 George Powell who was related to the family through marriage, wrote ‘The Mansion House of Belan is most Magnificent as is also the Demesne thereto, containing 12 porters Lodges Erected by the present Earl at the six Approaches, who hath also added thereto a Fruitery, Green, Hot and Tea Houses, a Square of Offices, a Chappel & a Theatre & Expended near £8000 on the Estate…’
Almost all of this is now gone, and the only evidence of Belan’s former resplendence are the aforementioned stables, the shell of an octagonal tea house, a few obelisks and a small domed temple. For once, however, decline and fall occurred not during the last century but earlier and while members of the Stratford family were still, if only nominally, great landowners.
Originally from Warwickshire, the Stratfords seem to have settled in Ireland about the time of Charles II’s restoration in 1660. Within a few years Robert Stratford had acquired land around Baltinglass, County Wicklow and thereafter their rise was assured, not least through the ability to return two members to the Irish House of Commons. By 1690 they already owned property at Belan, since in July of that year Edward Stratford found himself successively entertaining the two rival Kings James and William, his personal sympathies lying with the latter. As William ultimately proved the victor, the Stratfords’ political and financial status was further strengthened. Edward Stratford’s third son John (who was made first Earl of Aldborough shortly before he died in 1777) inherited Belan around 1740 and soon afterwards commenced either to build anew or to enlarge his residence there. The architects for this property are held to have been Richard Castle and Francis Bindon.
We cannot say for certain what the house looked like since paintings in which it features by William Ashford (from which the engraving at the top of this piece is taken) and Francis Wheatley (see the very last picture, showing the second Earl reviewing the Aldborough Volunteers at Belan) display differences that suggest to some extent they reflected the owner’s aspirations for the building rather than its actual appearance. Nevertheless we do know the main block, large and plain, was 120 feet long and 44 feet deep, of three storeys with a gabled attic and projecting end bays. To its right were the pair of parallel stable blocks that still survive (albeit in ruinous state), the first of them linked to the house by a curved portico.
Here are some extracts from the delightful reminiscences of Georgina Sartoris (née Lyster) published in the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society in January 1908 during which she recalls visiting Belan as a little girl in the 1830s:…’a fine stone mansion, a magnificent flight of granite steps, with two stone vases at the top, led to the entrance door. Though uninhabited for fully ten years, the house was in perfect repair, no trace of damp or decay and to all appearance, might have been lived in a week before. I have not a distinct recollection of all the rooms; but the dining room is fresh in my memory, also the saloon, and his late lordship’s bedroom. The dining room, not very large was panelled, family portraits being set in the panelling. I was too young to care much about them, but feel sure they were all of men. Had there been lovely ladies or pretty children amongst them, I should have remembered them. The saloon was lovely, with a polished floor of narrow oak boards…. on one occasion (why I know not) my sister and myself occupied his late lordship’s bedroom, very comfortable it was of moderate size, the fireplace like those of the other bedrooms surrounded with the prettiest tiles I have ever seen, the ground white with pink and blue landscapes, figures and flowers on it; a fine four post mahogany bedstead, Indian chintz curtains, some Chippendale chairs, and a wardrobe are all I remember of its furniture…The grounds of Belan were very beautiful, and of considerable extent. On one side though not seen from the house, were the celebrated fish ponds (not that in my time there was a fish in them), large and deep, the trees around them giving them a secluded and fascinating look. Here, on hot summers’ evenings, we used to sit and watch the dragon flies. I had never seen dragonflies before, and could not associate them with flies – I could only think of them as tiny winged spirits, whispering messages from afar to the reeds and irises which grew at the water’s edge. The gardens were at some distance from the house, and were large and walled in. I do not think I was often in them. What struck me most was the enormous quantity of lily of the valley. I have never seen anything like it elsewhere and its scent lingers with me still…’
The fall of the house of Stratford was as spectacular as its rise. The second Earl, a man of great energy, not only greatly improved the house and demesne at Belan but was also responsible for developing Stratford Place in London and for building the immense (and now sadly dilapidated) Aldborough House in Dublin in the years preceding his death in 1801. Although twice married, he had no children and so a younger brother inherited. The last member of the family to live at Belan, he was likewise childless meaning everything passed to another brother, the fourth Earl who preferred to occupy a house elsewhere on the estate, Stratford Lodge (subsequently destroyed by fire) and who abandoned Belan to an agent more interested in helping himself than in looking after his employer’s property. The next heir, Mason Gerard Stratford, fifth Earl was a hopeless spendthrift who, when short of funds, would visit London money lenders with a gun and threaten to shoot himself if they did not give him cash. He was also a bigamist, possibly even a trigamist, and on his death the eldest son from one of these marriages had trouble claiming a right to the title and what remained of the family property. Sixth and final Earl of Aldborough, he died without heirs in 1875.
By that date Belan was already in poor condition and some thirty years later Mrs Sartoris, who remembered the house intact, could write that ‘Beautiful Belan lies in ruins, the wind blowing where it listheth, sighs over the desolate grounds and gardens once so beautiful, a herd lives in the yard, sole occupant of that once lovely demesne.’ As late as the 1940s the main walls of the house still stood, but this shell was subsequently swept away. Today only the remnants of the stables survive to remind us of what once stood on this site and to serve as a warning that nothing is eternal.