Some buildings announce their sense of worth on first sight, while others are more self-effacing and require discovery. Kilpeacon, County Limerick belongs to the second category, initially making little impression on the visitor who will only note a modestly-proportioned, wide-eaved villa and assume there is nothing more to find here.
Certainly the house’s exterior gives little indication of the riches within. Kilpeacon presents itself as a two-storey, three-bay property, the main walls faced in roughly dressed limestone, with the two ground floor Wyatt windows given red brick surrounds: this would originally have been concealed by rendering. Cut limestone is used sparingly except for the facade’s most notable feature, a single storey breakfronted and balustraded bow porch with carved Ionic columns, and for the surrounds of the aforementioned pair of Wyatt windows which have acanthus brackets and a patera decoration within their arches. Nevertheless, these elements are unlikely to alter the notion that this is a house of only passing architectural interest.
Kilpeacon dates from c.1810-20 and was built for a local land owner Edward Cripps Villiers. It appears that in the mid-17th century the estate had come into the possession of Sir William King, a Cromwellian soldier who in 1665 served as Mayor of Limerick (and in 1690 was Governor of the city, during which time he was held captive by the supporters of King James). Having been granted lands to the extent of 21,600 acres in the county, he settled at Kilpeacon on which stood a castle previously belonging to the royalist Sir David Bourke: in 1653 the latter, then aged 64, and his family were dispossessed of all their property. Although married to Barbara Boyle, daughter of the Bishop of Cork, Sir William King had no direct heirs. Therefore on his death in 1706 Kilpeacon passed to a pair of grand nephews, Richard and Edward Villiers: a marble monument to their great-uncle was duly erected in the local church and remains there to the present. The Villiers brothers also died childless and so the estate was in turn inherited by one of their nephews Joseph Cripps of Edwardstown, who added the Villiers name to his own. Edward Villiers who was responsible for building the present house appears to have been his grandson.
In Limerick: Its History and Antiquities (published 1866) Maurice Lenihan writes that ‘Kilpeacon Court’, which he describes as ‘exceedingly tasteful and beautiful’ was built by Edward Cripps Villiers at a cost of £12,000. Its design is customarily ascribed to Sir Richard Morrison, not least on the basis of strong similarities with several other houses for which he was responsible, in particular Bearforest, County Cork (1807-8) which likewise had a bowed entrance porch flanked by Wyatt windows, and Hyde Park, County Wexford (1807), although the latter instead has a tetrastyle Doric porch. Nevertheless, the links are strong enough to make the attribution to Morrison hard to refute.
The three houses have certain characteristics in common, especially a top-lit staircase hall from which radiate the main reception rooms. Kilpeacon is larger than one might suppose, since in addition to the staircase hall the ground floor holds an oval entrance hall, library, morning room, dining and drawing rooms, all of substantial proportions, while the first floor contained six bedrooms. This may look like a humble villa but it is actually a very decent-sized country house.
The surprise and delight of Kilpeacon lies in its decoration, far more elaborate than would be expected given its exterior reserve. This begins in the oval entrance hall where the heavily ornamented entablature breaks forward on both sides and is supported by three columns with composite capitals. The doors here, as elsewhere, are panelled and inlaid with the style varying from one room to the next. The stair hall rises to a glass dome and has a gallery running around three sides, barrel-vaulted corridors providing access to the bedrooms. As for the reception rooms, they also benefit from sumptuous decoration both in the plasterwork and the white marble chimneypieces which feature a variety of classical gods and goddesses. The drawing room ceiling, for example, is decorated with oval wreaths of flowers and foliage, the outermost entwined with shamrock.
The expense of building Kilpeacon must have been more than the estate could sustain, because by 1850 the place was being offered for sale. Lenihan reports that Major George O’Halloran Gavin, ‘late of the 16th Lancers, in which he served with distinction in India’ first bought the house and demesne of 429 acres that year and then in the following acquired an additional 250 adjoining acres, all from the Encumbered Estates Court. He paid £12,000, the same price as the house had cost barely a generation earlier.
Following his retirement from the army Major Gavin served as an M.P. for Limerick City. He died in 1880 and the estate passed to his son Montiford Westropp Gavin who played cricket for Ireland in 1890. In the 1911 census he is recorded as resident in the house with his wife, four daughters and four servants: he died in 1922 and five years later Kilpeacon was sold. It has since passed through a number of hands and of late has been offered for sale again. One must hope it finds a sympathetic new owner, ideally somebody who appreciates the house’s exceptional qualities cleverly concealed behind a plain exterior.