Waiting to be Woken

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Anyone who has read Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes will remember the author’s evocation of Les Sablonnières, ancient home of the de Galais family which has seen better days. It is here that the novel’s eponymous hero, having disappeared from school, comes across a magical costume party and falls in love as much with the place as with the girl he meets on that occasion. Thereafter both he and the narrator are driven by a desire to recapture a lost moment and as a result are repeatedly driven to return to Les Sablonnières.
Milltown Park, County Offaly is like an Irish version of Alain-Fournier’s fictional house. Hidden from sight on all nearby roads, unknown even by many of the local residents and only discovered at the end of a long, verdant drive, it seems to seep memories and to be haunted by the past. Replete with echoes and reverberations, it is a sleeping beauty of a building, deep in dreams of what once took place within its walls and waiting for someone to come along and stir it into life again.

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In a blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720 but the accompanying initials W.S. suggest this was added long after the house was finished, since at the time of its original construction the estate was owned by the Spunner family: they only became White-Spunners in the 19th century after the son of Benjamin White and Elizabeth Spunner changed his name from Thomas Spunner White to Thomas Spunner White-Spunner on inheriting Milltown. Behind and to the north of the house is a large model farm courtyard built in 1840 so perhaps the initials and date on the front of the property were added at the same time.
In fact, Milltown is only slightly later in origin. The lands on which it stands appear to have been in the ownership of the Spunners since the 1500s and the ruins of an earlier residence remain. By the 18th century, with circumstances in the country more settled than had previously been the case and the economy accordingly more buoyant, the Spunners must have decided to embark on erecting a more fashionable home for themselves.

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‘From time to time, the wind, laden with a mist that is almost rain, dampens our faces and brings us the faint sound of a piano which someone is playing in the closed house. At first is it like a trembling voice, far, far away, scarcely daring to express its happiness. It’s like the laughter of a little girl in her room who has gone to fetch all her toys and is displaying them to a friend. I am reminded, too, of the still timorous joy of a woman who has left to put on a lovely dress and returns to show it off without being sure of the effect it will have...This unknown tune is also a prayer, an entreaty to happiness not to be too cruel, like a greeting and a genuflection to happiness...’
From Le Grand Meaulnes

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In Maurice Craig’s wonderful (and wonderfully named) 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, although Milltown Park does not feature many of its architectural elements are discussed. So, for example, when considering the elevation of these buildings, he writes of the widespread use of a tripartite opening, commenting ‘I prefer this term rather than “Venetian window” because it covers a number of pseudo-Palladian features which, though inter-related, can be distinguished from one another. It should be borne in mind that a round-headed door flanked by side-lights [as found at Milltown Park] is first cousin to a “Venetian” window. Such a door occurs in Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, where the sidelights are separated from the door by piers of walling...’
From grand Seaton Delaval in Northumberland to modest Milltown Park in Offaly in twenty-odd years is quite a journey, but the latter house shows how taste could travel and fashions be adopted by other architects such as Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (whose father, after all, was a first cousin of Vanbrugh). Note how the same tripartite design is used on both the ground floor (for the smart Gibbsian doorway) and that above but slightly bungled because, as indicated by the photograph below of the landing, the ceiling was too low to accommodate the full height of the central window. Thus its upper section is blind. Another indication of Milltown Park’s ‘country cousin’ status are the blunt gable-ends with oversized chimney stacks. The house shares characteristics with two others in neighbouring County Laois, Summergrove and Roundwood: all have five-bay limestone facades with a central breakfront featuring tripartite windows on the ground and first floor and a pediment above. They represent, as Maurice Craig notes, ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion: a shade unsophisticated but with great charm.’

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The interior of Milltown Park displays the same mixture of sophistication and naïveté, a broad awareness of current trends without a full understanding of how best to implement them. The design of some rooms clearly received more attention than did others. The entrance hall with its lovely flagged floor concludes in a screen that might have been inspired by Brunelleschi. And the front section has a ceiling decorated with pretty rococo plasterwork, generic in style but no less charming for that.
This is the only room with such ornamentation, although the drawing room has a good marble chimney piece and the morning room a fine neo-classical cornice frieze. But it is the handsome sturdiness of Milltown Park that most appeals, embodied by the broad first floor landing with its wide oak boards and views over the surrounding parkland. This was never an especially grand house, inspired more by aspiration than pretension, and embellished only as and when funds permitted. Hence its endurance for almost three centuries. Now, for the first time since being constructed, it is to be sold: a potentially hazardous moment in its history. Milltown waits to be awoken from its current slumber but whoever undertakes this task should have the sensitivity not to despoil the house’s special character. The place is vulnerable and requires - and deserves - special care. Wanted: one country gentleman prepared to share a property with a host of memories and happy to permit the ghosts of its past wander free.

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20 comments on “Waiting to be Woken

  1. mark Donnelly says:

    lovely article – pity it isn’t in a more convenient location!

  2. REMF says:

    Le Grand Meaulnes- did it for “A” level French in 1969

    I often wonder if the people who set the book knew the effect it would have on 17 year old boys!

    I have read again several times (once in French) and thanks for reviving the memory!

    • Thank you, yes I remember the pleasure of first reading Le Grand Meaulnes when I was the same age as the eponymous hero – and waiting for a similar adventure to occur in my own life. It never did: the onset of youthful disappointment…

  3. mth961 says:

    Always a pleasure to read up on your posts and pretend to know loads about architecture while reading about Irish architectural gems! 🙂

  4. Michael Thomas says:

    The centre panel on that fireplace,is exactly the same as one at Ballyduff,Co Kilkenny.

    • Thank you, that’s interesting. It becomes clear that there were certain generic decorative elements reused in houses all over the country during the late 18th/early 19th centuries…
      And Ballyduff is certainly on the ‘to visit’ list…

  5. the Elegant Economist says:

    O that green! Just the colour of my old drawing room.

  6. Josephine Damer Merrin Beattie says:

    My cousin in England just sent me this of Milltown. This was the home of my great grandmother Sophia White-Spunner and her parents Benjamin and Letitia White-Spunner. I live on the west coast of Canada and only in recent years found out about my Irish relatives. Thank you for writing about the home with such feeling. I have managed to learn a lot about many of my relatives and it is all most interesting!

    • Joan Dixon says:

      I was looking up Milltown and came across this wonderful article. You have lots of relatives in Mobile, AL and around the United States. My great grandparents were Benjamin and Laetitia. My grandfather Charles Thomas Nicolson White-Spunner moved from Milltown to the United States and ended up in Mobile, AL.

  7. Beautiful! That shot through the door is particularly transportive – It really makes you feel like you’re there, and you belong there.

  8. Marty Fahey says:

    What a wonderful place! Thank you for continuing to write about places such as these with such
    sensitivity to and respect for all of the ingredients–quite refreshing and rare.

    When I read the quote from Le Grand Meaulnes, I immediatley thought of the piece of music “Soft Mild Morning” which was collected by Edw. Bunting in 1796 from the harper (already 101 at the time!), Denis Hempson. If you are interested, let me know and I can send the soundfile via email. I just recorded it on the CD that accompanied the IRELAND: Crossroads of Art and Design Exhibit, 1690-1840 in Chicago. It is almost as if the quote was written while listening to this piece of music. Actually a bit eery.

    All the best,
    Marty Fahey

    • Dear Marty,
      Thank you for getting in touch and for your kind comments. The house is rather special: I spoke of it in Chicago in April when lecturing to the Antiquarian Society, but perhaps you were not able to attend that event? Thanks also for the offer of the music: actually I have a copy of the CD, so shall listen to it again and in particular the piece you reference. I trust all is well and look forward to seeing you later in the year…

      • Marty Fahey says:

        Dear Robert,

        I am embarrassed to say that, while I once knew that you were the author of these articles/site,
        I had forgotten that this is all written by you! Wow, yet another discouraging signal of advancing age!! It all makes such good sense now…..or rather, again.

        As to the talk, no, I am afraid I was not able to attend.There is something very compelling about
        this house and its setting (from what I can see) and I would love to chat more about it. Your description of it fits the visual evidence so well. Does anyone know who the original architect/builder was? It does seem to have that naive sort of familiarity with fashion but not at the highest level of skill to interpret the details flawlessly, which, I have to say is lovely and charming. It does remind me of Roundwood but moreso as a somewhat simpler, and perhaps less sophisticated ‘sibling’– certainly as it relates to the interiors. Would love to know more about the place.

        The reference to the piece of music is in the same vein: simple, lovely, plaintive…with some formal structure references but stopping short of actually being formal. When I read the quote from Le Grand Meaulnes, it was as if the same thing was happening in words, music and architecture simultaneously, a strange and wonderful synchronicity. Anyway, I am rambling…

        Thanks again Robert. We’ll see you in the Fall.

        Marty

  9. Rosemary says:

    Its a lovely house and the photographs of it are so moving, I was sad to see it is for sale again with the words opportunity to modernise in the description. I hope someone kind and caring has the stewardship of this lovely house and it escapes the ravages of modernisation.

    • Thank you for getting in touch: Milltown Park is a house very dear to my heart, being quite perfect in its form and execution, and sitting so handsomely in its parkland. Like you I very much hope the house finds a new and sympathetic owner soon.

  10. Leigh says:

    I have only ever driven past Milltown Park so it was lovely to see more photos of the interior. I wonder if the WS initials may refer to William SPUNNER rather than WHITE SPUNNER. According to Shinrone C of I Burial records a William SPUNNER ‘of Milltown’ was buried on 24 December in 1746.

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