The town of Mitchelstown, County Cork evolved around a mediaeval castle controlled by the FitzGibbons, otherwise known as the White Knights. Maurice FitzGibbon, twelth and last White Knight died in 1611 without male heirs and so the estate passed to his only sister Margaret; three years later she married Sir William Fenton whose English-born father Geoffrey had come to Ireland in 1580 with the country’s then-Lord Deputy Lord Grey de Wilton and subsequently risen to be Principal Secretary of State in Ireland. Sir William had two children, a son Maurice and a daughter Catherine, the latter marrying Sir John King, first Baron Kingston. The Kings were likewise English adventurers who received large grants of land around Boyle, County Roscommon (see Fit for a King, February 11th 2013). When Sir Maurice Fenton’s son William died in 1670 without male issue, once more the Mitchelstown property passed to a descendant through the female line, this time to his aunt Catherine. Thus her sons, the second and third Lords Kingston came to own land in County Cork although the latter, probably not expecting to inherit, had given his support to James III, moved to France and converted to Catholicism; within a year of his brother’s death he obtained a pardon from the Privy Seal and in 1715 took his seat in the Irish House of Lords. Some twelve years later his son James King, born in France, became the fourth Lord Kingston.
The fourth Lord Kingston seems to have made a number of changes to his property in County Cork, not least improving his accommodation in the area. The original Mitchelstown Castle, a 14th century tower house with later additions, had been badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s but subsequently restored. Now it was aggrandised and transformed into a Palladian-style house, described by Charles Smith in his 1750 Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork as having a large hall ‘round which at the top runs a handsome corridor; the staircase is large and lightsome, on the ceiling of which is painted the rape of Prosperine. Above the hall is a gallery, seventy feet long and twenty feet broad, from whence a fine prospect of the Galty mountains…the high mountains of the Knockmealdowns and, in the centre of both, the Comeraghs in the county Waterford all ranged in the manner of the scenes of a vast theatre.’ Meanwhile the 1,300 acre demesne was likewise subject to improvements thanks to planting of trees and the addition of a canal. An Irish Privy Counsellor and Grand Master of the Freemasons in Ireland on several occasions (the country’s oldest warranted lodge was established in Mitchelstown in the early 1730s), Lord Kingston married twice but, as had already happened on several previous occasions, produced no male heir and so when he died in 1761, Mitchelstown passed to his daughter Margaret, wife of the Hon Richard FitzGerald, a son of the 19th Earl of Kildare. The FitzGeralds once more having no surviving sons, Mitchelstown was then inherited by their daughter Caroline who in 1769 married her kinsman Robert King, second Earl of Kingston.
The fourth Lord Kingston’s will provided for the construction of a chapel and series of almshouses to be occupied by ‘poor Gentlemen and Gentlewomen members of the Church of Ireland as by law established.’ Known as Kingston College, this range of buildings was erected in Mitchelstown close to the main western entrance of the King estate and occupies the northern half of a new development called King Square: the southern portion was made up of private residences mainly occupied by family retainers and, on the south-east corner, the nine-bay former Kingston Arms described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a large and handsome hotel, which contains a news-room, supported by subscription.’
In 1771 in the premises of the Society of Artists in Ireland, Dublin (a building now being restored by the Irish Georgian Society) architect Francis Sandys exhibited an ‘elevation of a building proposed for an almshouse intended to be built at Mitchelstown…for reduced gentlemen and gentlewomen.’ However it appears that the eventual design chosen was by the Cork-born John Morrison (father and grandfather of the better-known Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison) and in turn his work may have been modified by another Dublin architect, Oliver Grace. We shall probably never know for certain.
A stone plaque on one of the walls of King Square carries the date August 1780 indicating work on the scheme was by then well-advanced if not completed. As originally conceived Kingston College consisted of twenty-four houses, some larger than others and the majority running along the extended north side of the square. However, in the late 19th century internal changes were made to increase the amount of accommodation so that there are now 31 units. Evidence of this modification can be seen outside by the blocking of some doors and windows and opening of others. While this interrupts the harmony of the original design, it does not fundamentally spoil the character of the whole but rather adds to the impression of age and changing circumstances.
Kingston College is centred on a chapel which stands in the middle of the north range, a pedimented building with a projecting limestone entrance tower. The houses to west and east are all two storey over basement, the latter having natural light thanks to a low wall, sometimes topped by iron railings, several feet from the building access to which is often gained by a couple of steps and a small bridge. On either side of the chapel were the largest residences, of five bays with a cut limestone Gibbsian doorcase: that on the east has since been subdivided so that the original door is now a window. Most of the smaller properties have brick surrounds on their openings, but the middle of the north-west and north-east ranges are broken by the intervention of two-storey pedimented stone breakfronts with piers topped by corbels and a Diocletian window below the pediment: the lower section is then split to provide admission to two houses. There are also a number of round topped blind brick niches, either immediately to the side of one door or between a pair of them. In both cases, above is a brick windowcase filled in with rubble, which seems to be part of the original design.
Established under the terms of the original benefactor’s will, the Kingston Charity Trust continues to own and manage the college, the only significant change being that residency is now open to people of all ages and faiths, traditionally referred to as ‘Collegians.’ There is still a Church of Ireland chaplain and a warden appointed by the trustees. To quote from the local diocese website, ‘The foundation was intended originally for former tenants of Lord Kingston’s estate, which is long since gone. The houses are now occupied mostly by retired people from all walks of life and from all parts of Ireland and beyond. The houses are not identical, but each is a separate, self-contained unit, with garden and out-offices, and the residents live completely independently, while still enjoying the benefits of being part of a community. As well as a chapel, there is a community room, which is used from time to time for various functions.’
Seemingly in recent years many of the properties have been renovated and modernised but it does seem a pity that more effort has not been made to harmonise such work: while there is no harm in a degree of diversity (just look at the various plant pots outside many of the front doors) a certain coherence in the design of doors and windows would benefit the entire site. Some landscaping of the communal green and the removal of so many intrusive telegraph poles and wires (not least in front of the chapel – would also improve the college’s appearance immensely. But these are relatively minor matters. Not many examples of 18th century philanthropic housing survive in Ireland: that in Mitchelstown is thriving. God bless the Kings.