In a book of his photographs published the year he died (2011) architectural historian Maurice Craig included the image above of Gaulstown, County Westmeath which he had taken in 1975. He recalled seeing the house then for the first time and commented, ‘It looked a bit neglected, but it seemed to be all there, especially the roof. I saw a new house only a few yards away (out of frame on the left) and drew the obvious conclusion: that my pet would soon be bundled away. I was wrong.’
In fact Maurice was wrong on two counts. Firstly there never was a new house only a few yards away, it is actually hundreds of yards away and completely invisible from Gaulstown. And of course its construction did not mean the loss of the old house which continues to stand almost four decades after it was noted by Maurice.
As is unfortunately all too often the case, we know little about the origins of Gaulstown. It bears similarities to a pair of similarly miniature Irish villas, Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (1735) and Ledwithstown, County Longford (1746) both of which are attributed to Richard Castle. Both are also larger and more refined in their details, and one has a sense that Gaulstown, the earliest of the trio (dating from c.1730) was something of a trial run for the other two. Casey and Rowan propose that it might have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce or perhaps his associate William Halfpenny. Maurice Craig was inclined to agree with this assessment but it seems too grand an attribution for such a modest dwelling. Might not Gaulstown instead have been the work of an amateur, perhaps even the original owner, a member of the Lill family generations of which lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries (although they would change their name to de Burgh for the sake of an inheritance)? Without wishing to disparage its considerable charms and its importance Gaulstown has the appearance of a building containing a variety of architectural motifs borrowed from books but, as the interior layout reveals, without these being necessarily completely understood or interpreted.
Casey and Rowan describe Gaulstown as being of only one storey over raised basement and with an attic, but this is not really the case since it possesses a trio of reasonably substantial floors. The roughcast rendered exterior is rigorously plain of three bays, that in the centre of the south-facing facade projecting forward. A long flight of steps leads to the substantial cut-limestone doorframe, which is an adapted Venetian window above which floats a small Diocletian window beneath the pediment: the only other openings on the front are windows on either side of the entrance, so that the building has an ascetic rigour that is most appealing.
Inside the main floor was originally divided (just like ancient Gaul) into three parts. The centre space formed one room running south to north for the full, albeit not terribly considerable, depth of the house. However at some date, probably for reasons of greater comfort and warmth, a partition wall was inserted dividing it into entrance hall with drawing room behind: the latter has a Venetian window mirroring that used for the entrance. To the east is a dining room, to the west the staircase and, behind it, a small boudoir or office. The stairs are lit by a large window on the return and they lead to a surprising number of bedrooms. Meanwhile the basement is also more generously spacious than would superficially appear to be the case.
‘This appealing structure,’ comments the author of Gaulstown’s assessment in www.buildingsofireland.ie ‘was designed with obvious architectural aspirations and is extremely well-proportioned, having instant visual appeal. It is strangely imposing for a structure built on such a small scale and this is down to the quality of the massing.’ This is an admirable summary of the house, which further benefits from its setting, being reached at the end of a long straight drive and surrounded by open countryside. To the immediate west are the remains of the old brick-walled garden, behind is a still-working farmyard. These elements enhance the impression that Gaulstown was always intended as the residence of a gentleman farmer even though Casey and Rowan rightly refer to it possessing ‘an aristocratic or cultivated rusticity.’
Gaulstown apparently changed hands on a number of occasions before being acquired by the current owner’s grandfather. Today it is a family home, the present generation of occupants keenly aware of the building’s need for some remedial work: damp is something of a problem on the gable walls and, as these pictures make clear, the fenestration could be improved. Yet these issues are not insuperable, and one of the pleasures of the house is that it looks to have retained so many of its original features such as the panelled doors and shutters with their chunky lugging, the plain but deep cornicing, the understated stair balustrades and so forth. It could, and ought to, be restored to better condition and the aspiration is that this will happen before too long. A little gem like Gaulstown deserves to be preserved, not least because today there are too few of its kind left in Ireland.
*Readers who studied Latin will no doubt recall the observation in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars ‘Gallis est omnis divisa in partes tres’ (Gaul as a whole is divided into three parts).