Most visitors to Collon, County Louth are likely to pass swiftly on their way, unaware the house on the north-east corner of the village’s crossroads has powerful links with a pivotal moment in our history when the country likewise stood at a crossroad: the 1800 Act of Union. This building, known as Collon House, was the birthplace and lifelong residence of John Foster, last speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
The Fosters are believed to have been of English origin, coming from Cumberland to settle in this country sometime around the time of Charles II’s Restoration: the name of a Samuel Foster appears in the Hearth Money return (by which one shilling was paid for every firehearth or stove in a dwelling) for the parish of Dunleer, County Louth in 1666. Samuel Foster’s son Anthony, named as a burgess of Dunleer in 1683, seems to have been a small tenant farmer in the area but his son John studied law, married well and started to acquire land, much of it formerly belonging to an impecunious branch of the Moore family. By the time of his death in 1747 he had built up an estate of some 6,000 acres. This property included Collon where around 1740 John Foster’s son, another Anthony, built the family residence. Land ownership conveyed power and thus with his election as an M.P. in 1737 Anthony Foster was able to wrest control of the Dunleer borough over which he and his son thereafter retained until the abolition of the Irish parliament. Trained as a barrister, from 1760 to 1766 Anthony Foster held the Office of First Counsel to the Commissioners of the Revenue, before being appointed Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer, retiring from this position a year before his death in 1778.
John Foster’s biographer Anthony Malcolmson describes Anthony Foster as ‘an able man whose misfortune it has been to be overshadowed by an even abler son.’ This is evident in his enterprises in Collon and surrounding areas. Finding the land here in poor condition – he recalled it had been ‘a waste sheep walk, covered chiefly with heath, with some dwarf furze and fern’ – he carried out many improvements, not least through drainage. When the English agriculturalist Arthur Young published his Tour of Ireland in 1780 he called Anthony Foster a ‘great improver, a title more deserving estimation than that of a great general or a great minister,’ someone who had ‘made a barren wilderness smile with cultivation, planted it with people and made those people happy,’ altogether a man whose work on his estate was ‘of a magnitude I have never heard of before.’
Anthony Foster gained a patent to hold a weekly market in Collon as well as two annual fairs, and the grounds of his house, in which he built greenhouses in 1763 for the production of exotic fruits, became renowned for their variety of trees and shrubs: this interest in botany would be inherited by his son who is credited with introducing the copper beech to Ireland. However, all this land acquisition and improvement came at a price, and as early as 1740 John Foster the elder was concerned over his level of indebtedness. The family never managed to become solvent and by 1810 his grandson John was estimated to have debts of £72,000. As we shall see, this helps to explain the relative modesty of Collon House.
John Foster was born in 1740, on other words precisely around the time Collon House was being built by his father. Like the latter, he sought to improve the family estate, developing a linen industry in the area, building mills and encouraging Protestant weavers to settle in Collon. Also following the example of Anthony Foster he studied law and was first elected to parliament in 1761. Noted for his interest in the economic and commercial betterment of this country, he was involved in successfully ‘regulating Ireland’s external trade with Great Britain, with other parts of the Empire, with the United States, and with France’. In 1777 he served as Chairman of the Committee of Supply and Ways and Means before succeeding his cousin and brother-in-law Walter Hussey de Burgh as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1784. In that year parliament passed his corn law, ‘granting large bounties on the exportation of corn and imposing heavy duties on its importation.’ According to the 19th century historian William Lecky, ‘This law is one of the capital facts in Irish history. In a few years it changed the face of the land and made Ireland to a great extent an arable instead of a pasture country.’
Foster only remained in the Exchequer a year before becoming Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1785, the final man to hold this position. His understanding of Ireland and her particular circumstances made him a leading opponent of the Act of Union. ‘I declare from my soul,’ he declared when the abolition of the Irish parliament was first proposed, ‘that if England were to give us all her revenues, I could not barter for them the free constitution of my country.’ He was forced to preside over the debate in the Commons for its own eradication, an occasion later recalled by Sir Jonah Barrington who wrote, ‘The Speaker rose slowly from that chair which had been the proud source of his honours and of his high character; for a moment he resumed his seat, but the strength of his mind sustained him in his duty, though his struggle was apparent.’ However, Foster refused to surrender the Speaker’s mace, declaring that “until the body that intrusted it to his keeping demanded it, he would preserve it for them.’ The mace was eventually offered for sale by his descendants in 1937 and bought by the Bank of Ireland. It has ever since remained in that organisation’s premises, the former Irish parliament building.
It is often proposed as evidence of the Fosters’ prudence that they did not indulge in building a lavish country mansion. But the fact that they remained in Collon might just be due as much to ongoing indebtedness as to financial sagacity. And they were not without other properties, having a residence in central Dublin (essential for any member of Parliament) as well as one on the outskirts of the capital (Merville, now part of the University College Dublin campus, but its original owners remembered in the name of adjacent Foster Avenue). Furthermore in the 1770s a short distance from Collon they would build themselves a pleasure pavilion called Oriel Temple and John Foster leased in perpetuity another house in the county, Rathescar Lodge which likewise still stands although much enlarged.
Nevertheless, the principal Foster residence remained that in Collon which, as built by Anthony c.1740 was a exceptionally extended version of the traditional Irish ‘long house’, in this case running two storeys and eighteen bays. It seems to have comprised a series of long, low rooms, none very substantial. Many of these survive, as can be seen in the photographs above and testify to the determinedly modest condition of the family’s living conditions: when Anthony Foster invited a cousin to stay around 1766 he warned that a shared room should be expected, presumably due to the number of other guests due at the same time. Inside the design is determinedly simple, with surviving chimneypieces and cornicing almost devoid of decoration. The want of ostentation was not necessarily to everyone’s taste. Indeed John Foster’s own daughter Anna, Lady Dufferin later wrote that arrangements in Collon House were ‘so uncomfortable as soon to banish all visitors, even of our own family.’ This would change somewhat after Anthony Foster’s death when his son inherited the house and embarked on a programme of aggrandisement.
The original Collon House ran east-west facing onto what is now the main road from Drogheda to Kells, County Meath but was then open countryside. Around the late 1770s John Foster enlarged the building at its western end, adding an additional storey to the final five bays and then to the immediate north creating a substantial entrance hall, high-ceilinged saloon and, behind these two, a stairhall lit by two big round-headed windows as it turns upon itself to climb to the upper floors. These windows look out on a courtyard around which run the various original outbuildings and service quarters. The proportions in John Foster’s addition are more generous, the cornicing and chimneypieces more elaborate but at the same time the earlier element of cautious restraint has not been forsaken: even in its late 18th century adjunct the house holds onto a certain self-effacement, all the more surprising since first Mrs Foster and then her husband were granted peerages.
The Fosters likewise held on to Collon House and its estate, although later generations, who became Viscounts Massereene, tended to spend the greater part of their time in County Antrim. Thus Collon House was neglected and indeed the more easterly part of the property internally separated from the main part of the building, hence today it runs to seven bays. In his biography of John Foster Anthony Malcolmson records that when he first visited the house in 1977 it was in ‘a fairly ruinous state.’ Having since changed residents a couple of times, Collon House has in recent years undergone extensive and meticulous restoration and, one suspects, now looks better than it did even when occupied by the Fosters. To give just one example the present owners panelled the dining room and thereby greatly improved its appearance; they have also created rather splendid gardens, a recollection of those made by Anthony Foster, as can be seen below. Today Collon House is in splendid shape. Visitors ought not to rush through the village but consider lingering there in order to experience the abiding spirit of the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
Collon House is now open for guests. Further information can be found at: http://www.collonhouse.com/index.html