The greater part of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin dates from the first half of the 13th century but six hundred years later much of the structure had fallen into disrepair. Therefore the dean and chapter were extremely grateful when in 1860 the wealthy brewer Benjamin Lee Guinness wrote offering to underwrite a complete restoration of the building, the only condition being that he be subject to no interference: the project took five years and cost £150,000. One of the alterations made by Guinness was raising the floor of the nave to the same height as that of the choir. In the process, new tiles were laid down, of which these are an example, based on mediaeval designs and covering the entire nave.
The 18th century polymath Thomas Wright (1711-1786) is usually described as being an astronomer, mathematician, instrument maker, archaeologist, historian, pedagogue, architect and garden designer. He was also evidently a man of great charm since he never wanted for friends or patrons and despite modest origins moved with ease, and always assured of welcome, from one country house to the next. In many respects, he can be considered the successor of William Kent who likewise rose from humble beginnings to enjoy a stellar career across a diverse range of disciplines. But whereas Kent never came to Ireland Wright did so, spending a year in this country in 1746-47. During this period he undertook the necessary research and made drawings for a book published in London in 1748, Louthiana. As its name indicates, the subject was County Louth and the work is the first example of such a survey of archaeological remains in Britain or Ireland. It features seventy-four copperplate sketches and line-drawings of ancient field monuments, most of them being the earliest accurate drawings of these places. Despite the book’s significance, Lord Orrery wrote soon after it appeared, ‘A thin quarto named Louthiana, is most delicately printed and the cuts admirably engraved, and yet we think the County of Louth the most devoid of antiquities of any County in Ireland…These kind of books are owing to an historical society founded in Dublin, and of great use to this kingdom, which is improving in all arts and sciences very fast: tho’ I own to you, the cheapness of the French claret is not likely to add much at present to the increase of literature.’
Thomas Wright came to Ireland at the invitation of his friend James Hamilton, first Viscount Limerick (and later first Earl of Clanbrassill) who, because his titles were in the Irish peerage, sat as at M.P. in the English House of Commons and thus maintained a house close to London (at Brook Green, Hammersmith) where Wright often stayed. Lord Limerick had benefitted from an extensive Grand Tour (the enlightening diaries he kept during this period were edited and published in 2005 by his descendant the present Earl of Roden) and brought a well-informed sensibility to his Irish estates based in Counties Down and Louth: he owned the greater part of Dundalk which had been purchased by his parents and where his main residence was located (the Manor House, demolished 1909).
It was here that Wright established his base while a guest of Lord Limerick and the latter’s wife, Lady Harriet Bentinck who was related to many of the other families supportive of his endeavours. Among these was Viscountess Midleton whose husband Alan – he had large estates in County Cork – was responsible, with the second Duke of Richmond (father of Ladies Emily and Louisa Lennox who respectively married the first Duke of Leinster and Thomas Conolly of Castletown) for drawing up the first written rules for cricket. Lady Midleton was Lady Limerick’s step-niece while her step-sister the Countess of Essex was also married to a man owning extensive property in Ireland. All of them numbered among Wright’s friends and supporters, and help to explain his connexions with this country.
As mentioned, Lord Limerick’s principal residence was in Dundalk and it is believed that the improvements he made in the grounds of this house were designed or inspired by Wright. In late June 1952 during his tour through Ireland the future Bishop of Ossory (and later Meath) Richard Pococke noted of Dundalk, ‘Lord Limerick lives here, and has made some fine plantations and walks behind a very bad house which is in the street of the town: as walks with Elm hedges on each side, an artificial serpentine river, a Chinese bridge, a thatch’d open house supported by the bodies of firtrees, etc. and a fine kitchen garden with closets for fruit.’ At least some of those interventions indicate the influence of Wright.
Lord Limerick also owned land further north at Tollymore, County Down and in September 1746 he and Wright travelled there for a stay of eight days. There was an old house on the property but in 1740 a ‘New Deer Park’ had been created on an adjacent site with a small hunting lodge or summer house being built there. Its situation was exceptionally romantic, with the land dropping down to the Shimna river before rising up to the Mourne Mountains. One imagines it was this vista which stimulated both Wright and his patron and led to the erection of a series of other structures in the park.
Here is Richard Pococke continuing his perambulations around Ireland: ‘I came over the hills to Briansford [now Bryansford], on the side of Tullamore park, which belongs to Lord Limerick; this park is a very fine situation, being divided into two parts by a rivlet which runs in a deep rocky bed covered with trees, and affords a most Romantic prospect, to this rivlet there is a gentle descent; on the other side the Park takes in for a mile the foot of the high mountains of Moran and particularly of the highest call’d Slieve Donard which is 1060 yards high from the surface of the sea to which it extends: the park is all fine wooden and cut into Vistas up the side of the steep hill; there is a handsome bridge over the rivlet, where the rocky cliffs on each side may be twenty feet deep, and so cover’d with trees that you can hardly see the water at the bottom in some places. Here just over the rivlet Lord Limerick has built a thatch’d open place to dine in, which is very Romantick, with a stove near to prepare the Entertainment: above on the North side of this He has begun to build a pretty lodge, two rooms of which are finished, designing to spend the Summer months here…’
The ‘thatch’d open place’ which Pococke deemed to be ‘very Romantick’ is no more (it was likely gone before the end of the 18th century), but many of the interventions made by Lord Limerick, and by his son the second Earl of Clanbrassill, remain at Tollymore. All show the abiding influence of Wright and although no material survives specifically linking him with any of them, their design (and their similarities to other such work in England which can be traced to him) allows one to assume such a connection. It is interesting that even structures in the parkland of a later date are in the same style as those put up in the period following the September 1746 visit to Tollymore; for example the Barbican Gate which is post-1777 (see top photograph). By this time the second Earl had come into his inheritance but as a young man he had benefitted from Wright’s teaching and thereby imbibed the latter’s ideas on garden design.
The original lodge at Tollymore consisted of a two-storey, five bay house, the centre of which featured a three-sided bow. Single storey wings were added on either side and this is the building that appears in a 1787 engraving by Thomas Milton after John James Barralet. Following his father’s death in 1758 the second Earl of Clanbrassill enlarged the the house adding three single-storey extensions, each forty feet long, to create an internal courtyard. He also put up further edifices around the demesne, not least Clanbrassill Bridge dated 1780, which has two turrets with pinnacles and niches at each end, and the high-arched Foley’s Bridge of 1787. When he died in 1798 his estates passed to his sister Anne Hamilton, widow of the first Earl of Roden; she like her brother had been tutored when young by Wright and therefore brought the same understanding to Tollymore. In turn on her death in 1802 it all passed to her eldest son Robert Jocelyn, second Earl of Roden. The Rodens’ main residence had hitherto been Brockley Park, County Laois, a house designed in 1768 by the Sardinian architect Davis Ducart (and sadly demolished in 1944). However, the family preferred Tollymore and so the house here was greatly enlarged in the 1830s, although it remained possible to discern the original lodge (see photograph below).
The Rodens continued in ownership of Tollymore until the last century when the eighth Earl gradually disposed of the land, park and house, the buyer being the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture. In the mid-1950s Tollymore was opened as the province’s first public forest park but by this date the house, having stood empty for some time, was demolished: today a car park occupies its site. The rest of the demesne has been maintained and certainly deserves to be visited in order to gain an insight into 18th century romantic sensibility.
Tollymore has been the subject of a number of excellent studies as follows:
Tollymore: the Story of an Irish Demesne by the Earl of Roden (Ulster Architectural Heritage Series, 2005)
Tollymore Park: The Gothick Revival of Thomas Wright & Lord Limerick by Peter Rankin (The Follies Trust, 2010)
Thomas Wright and Viscount Limerick at Tollymore Park, County Down by Eileen Harris (in The Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, Volume XVI, 2014).
One of the quadrants linking the main block to its pavilions at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. This part of the building dates from the 1730s when Thomas Mahon commissioned architect Richard Castle to enlarge and modify an earlier house on the site. Castle undertook the project with exceptional skill by deploying a handful of familiar motifs, in this instance a pedimented doorframe below a recessed niche, both flanked by regular windows and oculi on their respective floors. The crispness of the cut limestone contrasting with the rendered surface of the walls enhances the overall impression of refined simplicity.
The column terminating a vista in front of Furness, County Kildare (see A Gentle Evolution, May 26th last). Originally this column stood in the parkland of Dangan, County Meath, once the property of Richard Colley Wesley, first Baron Mornington (and grandfather of the first Duke of Wellington). When Mrs Delany visited Dangan in 1749 she wrote that in the grounds ‘there is a fir-grove dedicated to Vesta, in the midst of which is her statue; at some distance from it is a mound covered with evergreens, on which is placed a Temple with the statues of Apollo, Neptune, Proserpine, Diana, all have honours paid to them and Fame has been too good a friend to the mentor of all these improvements to be neglected; her Temple is near the house, at the end of the terrace near where The Four Seasons take their stand, very well represented by Flora, Ceres, Bacchus and an old gentleman with a hood on his head, warming his hands over a fire.’ All now gone unfortunately, but the column – topped by a copy of Giambologna’s Mercury – was rescued in the last century and set up in the grounds of Furness to mark the 21st birthday of a previous owner.
The name Ballyfin derives from the Irish An Baile Fionn, meaning the fair place, and it’s an apt description for the house and estate in County Laois which now bear that name. Originally this part of the country was under the control of the O’More clan, but like so many others they were displaced of their lands during the settlement period in the 16th century. Laois was one of two counties created by Queen Mary in 1556 when it was called Queen’s County (and its main town, now Portlaoise, was Maryborough) and by the early decades of the following century Ballyfin had passed into the control of Sir Piers Crosby who is said to have built a castle here. In the disturbances of the 1640s, however, Crosby lost this territory when it came into the ownership of one Periam Pole, younger son of the Devonshire antiquarian Sir William Pole. In turn his son, likewise called Periam, would be confirmed as being in possession of the land, part of a larger estate of some 3,500 acres.
His son William Pole succeeded him in 1704 and some time later pulled down the old Crosby castle, replacing it with a more commodious house, these changes being described by a nephew as ‘grand and expensive and his designs were elegant, as his gardens show.’ But the expenditure meant that by 1727, the same relation would comment that William Pole ‘died worth no ready money between his improving Ballyfin and his wife’s going constantly every winter to Dublin.’ His elder son, another Periam – who undertook restoration on the house following a fire – died childless in 1748 and so the estate went to his sibling, another William Pole. The latter and his wife Lady Sarah Moore, a daughter of the fifth Earl of Drogheda, greatly developed Ballyfin’s parkland: in May 1759 Emily, Countess of Kildare could write to her husband, ‘Yesterday I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin…There is a piece of water there very like what I fancy ours will be, only broader; fine plantations and the greatest variety of trees and flowers almost that I ever saw anywhere.’ Over 250 years later Lady Kildare’s description remains apt.
In addition to the grounds, William and Lady Sarah Pole also carried out work on the house built by his father, including ‘an elegant and commodious square of offices’ and, in 1778, an extension to the building that provided a new entrance hall and series of reception rooms. In 1784 William Ashford painted a number of views of Ballyfin which provide us with an idea of its appearance at the time; one of these pictures was engraved by Thomas Milton and published in 1787 in his Views of Seats in Ireland. The house is shown across the lake created by the Poles, a fourteen-bay elevation conforming to Milton’s description of it as ‘plain and modern-built’, the result being ‘an excellent family mansion’ with rooms ‘large and commodious, fitted up with taste’. Another engraving of the same building in 1794 shows its uneven façade and provides confirmation that the owners were planning still further developments. On the other hand, as was so often the case in Ireland, ambition outstripped income and it is apparent the Poles were heavily indebted by the time of their deaths in 1780 and 1781 respectively. Still, they were determined the improvements they had undertaken should not be dissipated, William Pole declaring in his will that ‘the person for the time being who shall enjoy my mansion house and demesne of Ballyfin shall engage and employ a skilful gardiner at the salary of one hundred pounds Sterling a year to attend and take care of the improvements…so as to keep and preserve the same in good and compleat order, repair and condition.’
Like his elder brother William Pole had no children, and therefore Ballyfin passed to a godson and great-nephew, William Wellesley, whose father was the music-loving first Earl of Mornington and whose younger brother would become the great Duke of Wellington. Wellesley’s inheritance came with the proviso that he adopt the name Pole, and so he became William Wellesley-Pole. Although he spent time in this country as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1809 and 1812 and as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer during part of the same period, Wellesley-Pole, who would be made first Baron Maryborough in 1821 (and on the death of another brother in 1842 become third Earl of Mornington), spent the greater part of his career in England. In 1813 he offered his Irish estate for sale, a fortunate move since it would otherwise have been squandered by his eldest son.
This gentleman was one of the most notorious rakes of the early 19th century. Born William Wellesley-Pole, in 1812 shortly before marrying for the first time he added the surname of his heiress fiancée, thus becoming William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. The unfortunate bride, Catherine Tylney-Long, at the time generally called ‘The Wiltshire Heiress’ was believed to be the richest commoner in England, with estates providing an annual rental income of £40,000 per annum and financial investments worth £300,000. Her husband, on the other hand, had only debts and within a decade was forced to flee to mainland Europe to evade his creditors. His last years were spent in London, living on a weekly pension of ₤10 provided by his cousin Arthur Wellesley, second Duke of Wellington. On his death in July 1857, the Morning Chronicle obituarist summarised him as follows: ‘A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance.’
Instead of being frittered away by William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the Ballyfin estate changed hands in 1813 when it was bought by Sir Charles Henry Coote, premier Baronet of Ireland. The first of his family to come to Ireland had been an earlier Charles Coote, like Periam Pole originally from Devonshire. As a young soldier he came to this country to make his fortune and was eventually rewarded with large grants of land as well as a lifetime possession of several valuable state offices. He died in 1642 during the Confederate Wars and was succeeded by his son Charles who supported Oliver Cromwell but, after the latter’s death, championed the restoration of Charles II and was thus granted the title of Earl of Mountrath. This title passed down through successive generations until the death in 1802 of the childless seventh earl who left his Mountrath estate of some 50,000 acres to a kinsman, Charles Henry Coote, then a ten-year old schoolboy. The property was held in trust until he came of age, conveniently just as Ballyfin was offered for sale and a year before his marriage to Caroline Whaley (a niece of the famous Irish gambler Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley).
Although the Cootes had been considerable landowners in Queen’s County since the early 17th century, they do not appear to have had a significant residence there. The ruins survive of two houses associated with the family, Castle Cuffe, built by the first Sir Charles Coote and named after his wife Dorothea Cuffe, and Rush Hall, but neither was in use by the time the ninth baronet came into his inheritance. Therefore it made sense to acquire an existing estate, especially one such as Ballyfin which had benefitted from the attention of successive earlier owners. He and his new wife settled here and when the place was visited by Atkinson in 1815, he reported in The Irish Tourist, ‘The dwelling-house of Ballyfin is a large building in the form of a half-square, it has an aspect of neatness and extent, but in its exterior appearance nothing very ornamental or magnificent. The rooms, however, which I saw, were spacious and furnished in a stile of elegance suitable to the place. Under this head may be classed, as an article of the first consideration, a rich and valuable collection of paintings, the work of eminent artists.’
It was perhaps because they required a better setting for their collection of ‘rich and valuable’ paintings that in the early 1820s the Cootes decided to embark on a rebuilding programme at Ballyfin. It would appear that the initial intention was to remodel and extend the existing structure, using the services of a relatively unknown architect called Dominick Madden (he would go on to design several Roman Catholic cathedrals in the west of Ireland). However, here as elsewhere Madden ran into trouble with his clients – in 1810 he had been dismissed from a position with the Board of Works for ‘irregular conduct’ including the theft of furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge – and was replaced by the ubiquitous Morrisons, Richard and his son William Vitruvius. They proposed an entirely new scheme that even involved the demolition of Madden’s recently completed library and vestibule, and somehow succeeded in persuading Sir Charles Coote to go along with their plans.
As Kevin V Mulligan wrote in a 2005 article on the house, ‘The detail and quality of finishes in the executed building, indicate that the Morrisons’ skills in spatial planning and decorative design were matched only by their powers of persuasion. The wealth of materials available to the Morrisons is seen in the ability to execute all the elevations in smooth sandstone ashlar. The conservatory, a feature represented in the Morrisons’ earliest proposals, seems to have been the only element sacrificed until Richard Turner’s fragile curvilinear glass cell was added sometime after 1855. Internally, a stunning collection of scagliola columns included the most expensive that could be obtained from the Lambeth works of William Croggon who almost certainly provided them here, represented by the imitation verde antico Corinthian columns that contribute to the imperial grandeur of the saloon. Elsewhere, endless mahogany for doors and bookcases and an assorted range of exotic woods used to remarkable effect in the parquetry floors constituted more expensive materials; added to this were the contents of seven packing cases sent from Italy in 1821 through the agency of the artist Gaspare Gabrielli which may have included the matching chimneypieces with Bacchanalian friezes that now serve the saloon and dining room or indeed the Roman mosaic set into the stone floor of the entrance hall. But all of this barely compares with the wealth of artistry available in the craftsmen who fashioned these materials, especially those who modelled and cast the extraordinary stuccowork, an eclectic decorative display that remains the principal glory of Ballyfin.’
Ballyfin remained in the ownership of the Cootes for just over 100 years before steeply declining income, the loss of the estate to the Land Commission and changing political circumstances obliged the family to sell. In 1928 the house and demesne were acquired by the Patrician Brothers for £10,000, only a fraction of what it had cost to build the Morrison-designed property a century before. The religious order operated a boarding school on the premises until they in turn announced an intention to sell in September 2001. After visiting Ballyfin the following January, I wrote that by this date some of the rooms had become ‘barely habitable, because in recent years the house has suffered from water seeping through the roof and into the building. A corner of the ground-floor drawing-room, for example, shows evidence of serious damage from this problem.’ While problems with the roof had been stabilised, ‘more costly work is still required on the parapets and corbels. Then money will need to be spent elsewhere on the building, taking care of those sections which have been ruined by damp as well as rescuing such features as the saloon’s marquetry floor, areas of which have become dislodged, and the unique glass and iron conservatory dating from the 1850s and believed to have been designed by Richard Turner…And the grounds are also suffering from a shortage of funds for their upkeep: trees need to be thinned or felled, while other sections of the woodlands should be replanted; the grottoes and follies, including a 19th-century “medieval” observation tower, are suffering; and one of the neo-classical gate lodges is almost derelict. Remarkable and deserving of support as Ballyfin may be, the question must be asked: who can or will come to its salvation?’
Amazingly, a new owner did come forward to save Ballyfin and to undertake the slow and costly programme of restoration that the house required. Work began in 2002 and continued until 2010, meticulous, methodical and almost without equal in this country. Ballyfin then reopened as an hotel, but not – as is too often the case – with its parkland despoiled and its interiors butchered. On the contrary, the sensitivity of the house’s present owners and the skills of the team they assembled to resuscitate the property means that this is one of the finest restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the past century. As a result Ballyfin today once more lives up to its name of being the fair place.
For this week’s account I am much indebted to Kevin V Mulligan’s excellent 2011 publication, Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne.
Ballyfin is now a superlatively luxurious hotel, for more information see: http://www.ballyfin.com
Next Wednesday, July 23rd, a sale takes place in Cong, County Mayo of items from Ashford Castle. Most of the lots appear to be surplus to the requirements of the place’s new owners but a few are survivors of the period when Ashford was owned by the Guinness family. Originally a 13th century de Burgo castle, in the 1670s Ashford passed into the ownership of the Browne family, remaining such until sold through the Encumbered Estates Court to Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness in 1852. He then left it to his eldest son Arthur Edward Guinness, created Lord Ardilaun in 1880. Between them père et fils greatly enlarged and improved both the old house and surrounding estate. It was never a full-time residence but primarily used during the shooting season: in January 1905 the Prince of Wales (later George V) spent a week there. Lord Ardilaun having no children, on his death in 1915 the estate reverted to the family trust which passed it on to the Hon. Ernest Guinness. He frequently joked that far too many people were employed at Ashford, ‘Every one of whom might fall over if you removed his (sweeping) brush.’ However, relations with staff gradually deteriorated to the point that the summer of 1938 they went on strike, looking for a wage increase of two shillings a week. Ernest Guinness was so exasperated by their behaviour that he left Ashford in his private plane and never returned. The following autumn the trust placed Ashford on the market and in spring 1939, shortly before the estate went to public auction, 22,000 acres were bought by the Irish State for £20,000. The castle and immediate 170 acres were leased by hotelier Noel Huggard; ever since Ashford Castle has operated as an hotel under a succession of managements, the latest taking over last year. Above is a page taken from a Guinness family photograph album showing a shoot on the estate eighty years ago.
From a letter written to Sir John Keane on July 30th 1913 comes this design for a new pedimented porch leading off the drawing room at Cappoquin House, County Waterford. The architect responsible, Page L Dickinson, came up with several proposals for this project which was intended to replace a 19th century wooden structure the style of which was unsympathetic to the main building. As he explains to his client, ‘The introduction of two columns inside the central piers reduces this opening to the same size as the others, & also makes more of a feature of the centre.’ Indeed it does, and so the design was accepted and executed just before the outbreak of the first World War, and the burning of Cappoquin ten years later. Thankfully the house was subsequently restored, and Dickinson’s addition remains intact.