Travellers in Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries seem rarely to have visited Laois, or Queen’s County as it was known until 1922. The preference was to head either south or north or west, by-passing the midlands with the result that references to this part of the country are not so easy to find. One suspects this continues to be the case, a pity since land-locked Laois has much to offer, not least the Lutyens-designed gardens at Heywood.
The main outlines of the estate here were created by Michael Frederick Trench, son of the Rev. Frederick Trench; one of those visitors to Ireland who did explore the area, English antiquary Owen Brereton, in 1763 wrote of the cleric’s property, describing it as ‘a sweet Habitation’ with ’24 Acres Walld round 10 feet high.’ Both the habitation and the grounds were enlarged by his son who in 1773 built a new house which he named Heywood after his mother-in-law’s maiden name. A barrister and amateur architect, Trench is believed to have been responsible for the building’s design, perhaps in consultation with James Gandon: Thomas J Mulvany’s biography of the latter (published 1846) states that in 1785 Trench ‘anxiously superintended’ the erection of the Rotunda Assembly Rooms in Dublin, being a member of the building committee. He has also been credited with the design of the two pavilions which terminated the colonnades on either side of the lying-in hospital.
At Heywood, Trench embarked on large-scale improvements to the surrounding parkland beginning with a gothic entrance gate and featuring various other decorative features, most notably a striking ruin on the adjacent hill, composed from elements of the mediaeval Dominican friary at Aghaboe some twelve miles away. When Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a year after Michael Frederick Trench’s death, he was able to call Heywood a ‘richly varied demesne ornamented with plantations and artificial sheets of water.’
When Michael Frederick Trench’s only son General Sir Frederick William Trench died in 1859, he left Heywood to the family of his sister Helena who in 1815 had married the euphoniously-named Sir Compton Pocklington Domvile. This couple’s granddaughter Mary Adelaide Domvile in turn became an heiress and in 1886 she married William Hutcheson Poë. There has always been some confusion about how to pronounce the family name, but William’s younger brother Edmund once explained, ‘I have been sat upon by women and held at arm’s length by men, but my name is pronounced p-o-a-y.’
Sons of a Queen’s County barrister, both men were educated at Dr Burney’s Academy in Gosport, near Portsmouth before joining the navy. Edmund rose to be promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1902, second in command of the Home Fleet the following year and Commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron in 1904. A year later he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station, then Commander-in-Chief, Cape of Good Hope Station in 1907 and Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet in 1910. Finally he became First and Principal Aide-de-Camp to George V in 1912, retiring two years afterwards.
William Hutcheson Poë meanwhile served in the Royal Marines and from 1884 was in Sudan, commanding a unit of the Camel Corps in the Relief of Khartoum in 1885 during which period he had a leg amputated. The following year he married Mary Adelaide Domvile and retired from service in 1888 when promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. The rest of his public life can be summarised as follows: in 1891 became High Sheriff for Queen’s County, and in 1893 for County Tyrone. He was a member of the Land Conference in 1904, was appointed a Governor of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1904 and created a baronet eight years later. In 1915 to 1916 he served in Egypt in the First World War, and from 1916 to 1919 with the Red Cross in France. From 1922 to 1925 he served as a Senator of the Irish Free State.
At Heywood Colonel Hutcheson Poë was responsible for substantial alterations to both house and grounds. With regard to the former, Sir Charles Coote in his Statistical Survey of Queen’s County (published 1801) having discussed Trench’s various enterprises on the estate says ‘The Mansion house has also been built after his own plan, and is of a curious, though not regular order of architecture, being a square building composed of four fronts, and, from the irregularity of the ground, on which it stands, presents at one front three stories, at another four, at the third five, and six at the fourth. The apartments are as commodious as could be wished for, and are considerably more extensive, than we should suppose from the outside view.’
In the 1890s this building was enlarged and almost engulfed by extensions to either side, designed by one of the period’s most indefatigable architects Sir Thomas Drew. Sadleir and Dickinson’s 1915 Georgian Mansions of Ireland describes the result as ‘a large building, embodying extensive recent additions, and has been in fact so completely re-edified that one room only retains its entire Georgian character. This is the large and well proportioned dining-room, a singularly handsome apartment, and one of the finest examples of the Adam style in this country…the walls are covered with plaster panels and festoons, which, like the ornament of the over-doors, are very delicately modelled. The mantel, purchased by the present owner in London, exhibits Adam decoration with wedgwood plaques, and there is a steel grate…A series of Minerva heads in the frieze conceal the electric light bulbs, this ingenious device obviating the introduction of unsightly electroliers. In the adjoining drawing-room, which also retains some Georgian features, are a number of valuable pictures, including the fine full-length of John Musters, of Colwick, in Nottinghamshire, by Sir Joshua Reynolds…’ A series of photographs taken by A.E. Henson in 1917 and published in Country Life two years later testify to Colonel Hutcheson Poë’s discerning taste as a collector of pictures and furniture, even if not of architecture.
Outside also Colonel Hutcheson Poë set about leaving his mark. The house at Heywood was built at the top of a south-west facing ridge from which the ground drops steeply to a lake out of which runs a stream in turn feeding two further lakes. As well as being a successful army man, Sir Frederick William Trench was a talented artist (just as his father was an amateur architect), and in 1818 he produced several drawings of the demesne from which lithographs were produced; these give an excellent idea of how the view swept away from the house across water and trees towards distant mountains, the very incarnation of the romantic landscape.
Nevertheless in 1906 Hutcheson Poë commissioned Edwin Lutyens to come up with a design for gardens in the vicinity of the house, occupying the area to the immediate south, east and west. As has already been explained, this part of the parkland is on a slope, and so the first and most important task was to build a massice retaining wall with buttressing to protect the house above from any risk of slippage. Thereafter the main features of the scheme begin with a pair of central terraces relatively uncluttered so as not to obscure views from the building; other than flagged walks and grass lawns, the most notable feature here is a pair of columns topped with stone balls and carrying carved milestones. Presumably Lutyens recycled these from elsewhere, as he did a series of Ionic columns which were once part of a Temple of the Winds erected by Michael Frederick Trench elsewhere in the grounds. The columns can now be seen in a pergola walk which Lutyens constructed to the west of the main terrace and where they support a line of oak beams. This walk, from which there is a sharp descent to the lake, is otherwise composed of rough-hewn stone, with an open prospect at its southern end and an apsidal niche at the northern: the latter once held a copy of the Capitoline Venus but now contains a more respectably clothed figure.
Colonel Hutcheson Poë was not an easy client and Lutyens’ letters indicate his time at Heywood was rather stressful. In February 1910, for example, he wrote to his wife, ‘Colonel Poë, you know, has a wooden leg and he sits on a chair and watches the men lay stones – stone by stone – and finds endless fault. I couldn’t stand it.’ Two years later he wrote again, ‘The gardens promise well, but he is so cross to his workmen, to me and to all under him, and his wife, who is very rich, is left alone and ignored almost. At least she goes her own way, ignores as much as she is ignored.’
On an earlier occasion Lutyens had announced that the colonel’s ‘cross period has damaged the garden as there is, I think, evidence in my work of my attitude or despondency towards him.’ There is in fact no evidence of the sort apparent, particularly not in the marvellous elliptical sunken garden which is Lutyens’ greatest legacy at Heywood. The approach to this was most likely intended to have been via a short sequence of yew enclosed spaces which lead to a curved flight of stone steps bringing the visitor right into the garden. Today however, the more customary point of access is from the main terrace, passing tall piers to a pleached lime walk. Here a low stone wall to the south offers open views of the countryside, the wall to the north being higher and carrying a series of cut stone niches: originally these contained lead busts but they are now filled with stone urns. At the end of this walk, wrought iron gates provide access to the sunken garden, its centre occupied by a large pond once fed by spouting bronze tortoises and holding a basin formerly topped by another piece of sculpture. At the easternmost point of the sunken garden is a slender, single-room pavilion, the rear wall of which contains four Ionic capitals set into the rough stone and said to have come from the 18th century Irish House of Commons designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (for more about this discovery, see Jane Meredith’s article on the subject in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 2001, Vol. 17).
Like so many other Irish country houses and estates, Heywood experienced mixed fortunes in the last century. After its owner’s death in 1934, the house stood empty and then the Land Commission moved in to divide up the property. In 1941 the house and surrounding 160 acres was acquired by members of the Salesian religious order who originally used the place as a novitiate. Unfortunately in 1950 the house was badly damaged by fire, after which a decision was taken to demolish it; a new building was erected on a site to the north-east adjacent to the former stable yard. This became a school run by the Salesians but since 1990 has been a community school. Three years later the Lutyens gardens were transferred to state ownership and they have since been the responsibility of the Office of Public Works.
Visiting Heywood today is a curious experience. On the one hand, it is wonderful that Lutyens’ work here has been preserved, on the other it is difficult properly to appreciate his vision without the presence of the house for which the gardens were intended to provide a setting: the context for which they were created has gone (see the plan below for a better understanding of this). And the 18th century parkland devised by Michael Frederick Trench is even harder to envisage since it has received very little attention, and some of it has been altogether lost. The defiant ugliness of the school buildings also plays its part in suppressing any impulse towards romanticism. Conversely, once properly inside the gardens equivocation slips away, and the genius of Lutyens takes over. It is, as I say, a curious experience but with the accompaniment of a little imagination by no means an unpleasant one.
With thanks to Máirtín D’Alton for his advice and information.