The settled nature of County Kildare, the fertile quality of its land and proximity to Dublin, all have long combined to give this part of the country a peacefulness and prosperity not always found elsewhere in Ireland. These qualities are evident at Furness, a property which, unusually, has changed ownership on only a handful of occasions over the past eight hundred years.
On a hill behind the present house stands a longstone rath, an earth ring some 200 feet in diameter with a fourteen foot granite standing stone in the centre: created around 4,000 years ago, it testifies to how long there has been human settlement here. Of more recent vintage are the nearby remains of an old church (a nave and a chancel separated by an arch) built on the site of an earlier religious establishment. In 1210 this church was granted with tithes to the Regular Canons of St Augustine based in the Abbey of St Thomas, Dublin who were considerable landowners in the neighbourhood. They remained in occupation for over three centuries until the advent of the Reformation in the 1530s saw the acquisition of such properties by lay owners. In this instance, the Augustinians were replaced by the Ashes, a mercantile family from nearby Naas who were kinsmen and friends of the powerful Eustace clan. Then, most likely in the 1670s, Furness passed into the hands of the Nevilles (sometimes spelled without the ‘e’).
The Nevilles are believed to be an Anglo-Norman family settled in County Wexford. The first of their number known to be resident at Furness was Richard Neville, listed as Sheriff of County Kildare in 1678. More than twenty years before, he had married Margaret, daughter of Sir William Ussher (the man responsible for the publication of the first New Testament translated into Irish): curiously this family, which is remembered by the Usher’s Quay and Usher’s Island in Dublin, is supposed originally to have been called Neville but their forebear on coming to Ireland in 1185 as usher to King John changed his name to that of his office.
In any case, the next generation, also called Richard Neville was Sheriff of Kildare in 1692, and Sovereign of Naas (that is to say, the town’s mayor) in the same year. He subsequently became Recorder of Naas and its Member of Parliament in 1695, and again in 1708. On his death in 1720, the estate passed to a third Richard Neville, a captain in the army who never married and probably therefore had the wherewithal to embark on the building of a new residence, the three-bay block at the centre of the present house. On his death, Furness passed to a nephew, Arthur Jones whose mother Mary had married Richard Edward Jones, colonel of the regiment in which his brother-in-law served. Even before coming into his inheritance, young Arthur had the good sense to change his surname to Neville.
Arthur Jones Neville had a colourful career. Born c.1712, by 1742 he was a member of the Dublin Society and the following year he was appointed Surveyor General, having purchased the office for £3,300 from its previous holder Arthur Dobbs; during his time in the position he was responsible, amongst other work, for drawing up the plans for barracks at Charles Fort in County Cork and for developing the Bedford Tower range at Dublin Castle. In 1748 he succeeded in having his salary increased and three years later entered the Irish House of Commons as MP for County Wexford. However, his troubles then began and in August 1752 he was dismissed as Surveyor General on the grounds of maladministration in relation to barrack building (he was, however, permitted to sell it on to the next holder). Then in 1753 during what is believed to have been a politically-motivated campaign of vilification he was expelled from the House of Commons. While this setback caused a stir at the time it does not seem to have done him permanent damage, since he returned to represent the same constituency in 1761 (and continued to do so until his death a decade later), and became Sheriff of County Kildare in 1762.
From our perspective, and much more importantly, Arthur Jones Neville seems to have been a man of exceptional taste and discernment, even during a period when – unlike our own era – such characters were found in abundance in Ireland. For a house he built at 40 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin in 1746, he commissioned the elaborate Apollo ceiling (by an unknown stuccadore): at the time of the building’s demolition, this was rescued and is now, appropriately enough, in the State Apartments of Dublin Castle. Similarly the following decade when he embarked on another building project at 14 Rutland (now Parnell) Square, he commissioned painted lunettes after Pietro da Cortona’s decorations in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence from Jacob Ennis who he had sent to Italy. A subscriber to several volumes on architecture and surveying, during his second period in parliament, he introduced a number of excellent bills, including proposals ‘For the further encouragement of planting timber trees’ (1765) and ‘For the better regulating of buildings in the city of Dublin, the liberties and suburbs thereof’ (1769).
On his death, Arthur Jones Neville was succeeded by his eldest son, once more named Richard Neville. He too became a Member of Parliament for Wexford, holding this position with intervals even after the Act of Union until 1819. He was also Teller of the Exchequer under the Irish Parliament, described as ‘a remarkably pleasant office to hold’ not least because it came with an annual salary of £2,835’ of which £835 went to a deputy who did all the work, leaving the balance to the office holder: he appears to have retained this sinecure until his death in 1822. He is judged to have been an improving landowner, based on an account of Furness given in Arthur Young’s A Tour in Ireland. Young visited the estate in 1777 and afterwards described his host as being ‘a landlord remarkably attentive to the encouragement of his tenantry,’ paying half the cost of houses built on his land, and providing premiums to encourage planting.
Richard Neville left two daughters, Henrietta and Marianne dividing his property equally between the two although ‘Furnace, house, offices, garden, front lawn, and back lawn to the river, cottage, and thirty acres’ were bequeathed to Marianne, with an option to take over the demesne at a valuation. Soon the place was sold to another family, the Beaumans who remained there until they in 1895 when they in turn sold Furness to Nicholas Synnott whose wife Barbara was a granddaughter of the seventh Viscount Netterville of Dowth Hall, County Meath(for more on this house, see Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been?, December 24th 2012). The Synotts continued to live at Furness until the late 1980s.
As the photographs above show, Furness has undergone gentle evolution since the original house was built, probably in the early 1730s. The Knight of Glin attributed the building to Francis Bindon, a name that has occurred here on many previous occasions, not least because it is difficult to say with certainty what was and was not from his hand. The ashlar-faced central block is actually quite small, and one wonders whether it was intended to be larger. Of three bays and three storeys, it has a lunette window above a pedimented first-floor window flanked by Ionic columns, beneath which is the entrance with coupled Doric columns with a Doric entablature. Behind this originally were the entrance hall, still with its handsome staircase of Spanish chestnut, and a study, with a number of reception rooms beyond. Were the wings of the same date or added later? In the 1780s the Nevilles certainly enlarged the house and soon after added a dining room with a large bow. It must have been during this period of expansion that the drawing room ceiling received its neo-classical plasterwork, attributed to Michael Stapleton, the central panel depicting a goddess showing the Greeks how to cultivate olive trees (which would harmonise with Richard Neville’s reputation as an improving landlord), as well as the fine white and Siena marble chimney piece. Presumably limited funds meant further such decoration was not possible elsewhere in the house. The next major change came after the estate was acquired by the Synotts when the entrance hall was enlarged by breaking a large arch through into the former study.
Furness has been owned by the same family for more than twenty years but now they have decided to put the house on the market, for only the third time in 280 years. It is a moment of change but, given the peacefulness and prosperity of County Kildare, one trusts Furness will continue to benefit from the same sympathy and love it has hotherto received throughout its history.