Splendours and Follies

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

image

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…’

image

image

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.

image

26 comments on “Splendours and Follies

  1. Homan says:

    The Irish Aesthete gets better and better. All these wonderful ‘discoveries’ brought to light and unnoticed details from the well-worn highlighted so well. Bravo!

  2. fantastic range of outbuildings – if only someone had the money and the courage to take it on as a restoration. if that was in England it would have been snapped up years ago.

    • Yes, the buildings are just at the point where they might still be saved but I fear another few years and it will be too late. There is a singularly ugly (and now also derelict) house dating, I would suspect from the 1960s right beside the stables. For reasons that do not need to be explained, I thought it best to exclude this from the photographs…

  3. Helen Kehoe says:

    Thank you for an most informative piece about the Earls of Aldborough my paternal side were from Baltinglass for several generations back, and in fact rented farmland from the said Earls in CloughCastle (Lower/Upper) townland until eventually purchasing it. Once again great information/photos and of real personal interest this time!.- unfortunate to be now in such a ruinous state- excellent article non the less!

  4. I was at Castletown House this weekend and looking out across the Liffey ‘view’ could see an obelisk in the distance, is this part of the ruins you describe ? it felt too far away to be part of Castletown. Thank you either way, your post is both an insight and an intrigue.

    • Thank you for your comment. The obelisk you saw is called the Conolly Folly. Designed by Richard Castle, it was built during the winter of 1740-41 at the request of Katharine Conolly (widow of the man who had commissioned Castletown) in order to provide employment for local people during a time of famine. The obelisk is located some four kilometres from the house and on land which was then not part of the Castletown estate but that of Carton, owned by the FitzGeralds (later Dukes of Leinster). The Conolly Folly is the emblem of the Irish Georgian Society. I hope this information is of some use to you. and thank you again for your interest.

  5. Thank you for this article. Although I grew up some miles from Belan I never visited these ruins. My father however attended house dances in the now also ruinous octagonal gate lodge, probably in the late thirties. Michael.

  6. Yes, I have seen the website, altho’ never visited Belan Lodge.

  7. Mairtin D'Alton says:

    Hi Robert. Wonderful article, I visited Belan a couple of years ago. I find it interesting that views of the house are far away or oblique; Bindon and Castle had idiosyncratic proportional systems, and combined with the seconds earl’s influence would have produced something very interesting indeed! Could you discuss in more detail the differences in the depictions at some point if you were of a mind ?

    • Thanks for your comments. I think the second Earl’s interventions certainly had an effect on the house and its appearance, but the scant information indicates that the original building as designed by Castle/Bindon was rather unadorned and with small’ish rooms, definitely out of step with the tastes of the later 18th century. I should try to assemble the different images of Belan and then one would be able to assess them and discuss how much actually came about and how much reflected Lord Aldborough’s aspirations.
      So much to do, this particular task may have to wait for the present…

  8. Aidan O Boyle says:

    I think it was a rather lop sided house quite similar to Dollardstown,Co Meath,a house also attributed to Richard Castle (Craig,Maurice,Classic Irish Houses,p106).From my own research on Lord Aldborough I think that he considered rebuilding Belan after his second marriage in 1787 but instead decided to build a new townhouse after he inherited property in Dublin.(O Boyle,Aidan, Aldborough House,Dublin:a construction history,IADS,Vol.IV,2001,pp102-141).

    • Thank you for your contribution. Of course I am familiar with your text, as no doubt you are with Ronald Lightbown’s 2009 book An Architect Earl. It is clear the second Ld Aldborough was never satisfied with Belan and even during his father’s lifetime was tinkering with the building (such as adding urns to the parapet). Especially once Stratford Place in London was complete, he continued to make changes in County Kildare, and as you note clearly considered pulling down the old house and putting up another in its place; the painting by Francis Sartorius of Ld Aldborough and his second wife around the time of their marriage shows in the background Stratford Lodge, altogether more to his taste, and that of his contemporaries (sadly the house burnt down in the 19th century). Belan looks unsatisfactory to us in extant paintings because the main block is linked to the stables by a colonnade and this makes the ensemble look lop-sided; without the link I suspect we would respond quite differently to the house. Then there were the assorted temples, tea houses and other structures erected seemingly at random around the parkland…
      (For those unfamiliar with it, the IADS is the Irish Georgian Society’s annual journal of Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, an invaluable resource).

  9. Very interesting as always. A small part of the estate was in Wicklow, and the Earl (guessing the 4th Earl) supported the establishment of a Kildare Place school at Stratford Lodge in 1824.

    • Aha, and I’m guessing you are still at work on your national schools of Wicklow project…
      The fourth Earl inherited title and estates in March 1823, so yes if the school was established the following year, he would have been responsible.

  10. Well done in highlighting this important ruin ! Hopefully our people of power take it on board before its all lost into our landscape ! For those of you have not visited – its well worth a look !

  11. Keir Loughlin says:

    What a beautiful blog. I stumbled across it searching for my 9th great grandfather, Robert Stratford but have stayed to see all of it. Thank you

  12. maryrose98 says:

    I just came across your blog and think its brilliant. I hate seeing these amazing buildings abandoned as they are of historic relevance to me. In the reminiscences of Georgina Sartoris published in the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society, the John Everin who came to meet the coach, and his father, the retainer to the old lord, also John Everin, were my great great grandfather and great, great, great grandfather. They came to Belan from Myskeath in Wicklow around 1820 and the cottage where they lived on the avenue is still standing, although in a derelict condition. Some Everin family still live in the area. I think old John Everin may have been buried in teh old graveyard beside the stables, all of which remains is one broken gravestone.

    From the article in the journal …

    “… Stalwart John Everin stood at the horse’s head. He was son to old John Everin, who had been groom and retainer to the late lord.”

    “… At either side, quite that distant from the entrance, stood two small houses, white and slated, neither cottages nor cabins, just two tiny houses – in the one on the right lived old John Everin with his sons and daughters. He was a protestant and had been during the rebellion at the burning of the barn at Scullabogue. Nevertheless, his wife and all his children were Roman Catholics, and one of his daughters was nurse to my sister and myself for many years.”

    “… Miss Best and my mother, being very young, lived a separate life and a very happy one. They rode out every morning with their governess, escorted by old John Everin ….”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s