Among the most engaging books of architectural history published during the last century was Maurice Craig’s Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976). From its title alone, one recognises this was a work out of the ordinary: Maurice was not interested in examining the more familiar big houses of Ireland many of which even by that date had been ‘accorded some fitting attention in fittingly sumptuous books.’ Instead he turned his well-honed eye on a category of dwellings which had hitherto been the subject of little scrutiny; indeed since then it has not received much more coverage. ‘If I have laid what some readers may think is undue emphasis on certain buildings which may appear small, insignificant and not very exciting to look at,’ he wrote in his preface, ‘it is because I believe they are essential links in the chain of evolution.’
Later in the Introduction he commented, ‘An unhappily high proportion of the houses illustrated in this book have either disappeared or have been mutilated or have fallen into disrepair. There are three reasons for this. One is that there seems to be a baleful correlation between architectural quality and misfortune. Too often it is the best buildings which fall victim to malice, neglect, ignorance, poverty or some amalgam of these evils; or to what can be worst of all, uncertainty of title especially when combined with bucolic paranoia. A second reason is that when a house is threatened or destroyed, the least we can do for it is to record its qualities, since it can no longer speak for itself. Finally there are times when the dereliction of a house gives opportunities for investigating, measuring and anatomising it, which would not occur if in normal occupation.’
So Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size concentrated on those properties ‘built by or lived in by minor gentry or prosperous farmers, or by manufacturers or traders, or occupied as dower houses, agent’s houses or as glebe-houses. The gulf between the ‘big house’ and the cottage has perhaps been over-emphasised by historians, and too much has been made of the absence of a middle class.’ The house featured today, Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny, is a representative example of this category.
The land on which Ballysallagh stands was for long owned by members of the Purcell family. The Purcells were of Anglo-Norman origin, their name believed to derive from the old French word ‘pourcel’ meaning piglet. Sir Hugh Purcell is said to have participated in the Norman invasion of Ireland and in the early 13th century his grandson, also called Sir Hugh, married a daughter of Theobald FitzWalter, Chief Butler of Ireland. This union was the origin of the link between the family and the powerful Butlers; in 1328 James Butler, first Earl of Ormond granted the Purcells the feudal title of Baron of Loughmoe, County Tipperary. The grandfather of the late 17th century composer Henry Purcell was a cousin of the Baron of Loughmoe.
Allied to the Butlers, the Purcells were concentrated in Counties Tipperary and Kilkenny and the lands of Ballysallagh remained in their possession during the Tudor colonisation despite periodic attempts at rebellion: in December 1571 Nicholas Purcell fitz Edmund of Ballysallagh was pardoned by the crown authorities, as was Edmund Purcell in 1589 and Edmund Purcell fitz Nicholas in 1600. However in 1653 Nicholas Purcell forfeited Ballysallagh and 758 acres under the Cromwellian seizures, and a large number of members of the family were certified for transplantation to Connaught. Yet the family remained on the site, most likely as tenants; in the early 18th century James Purcell was living at Ballysallagh and in 1720 his daughter and heiress, Mary Purcell wed Gerald Byrne from County Carlow who was assigned the property as part of the marriage settlement. It seems likely the couple built the present house soon afterwards: a stone at the front carries the date 1722.
Gerald and Mary Byrne had several children, only one of whom, their daughter Catherine, survived to adulthood. (Gerald Byrne also had an illegitimate son, James Byrne to whom in his will he left farm stock and land.) Dying in 1740 at the age of 26 Catherine predeceased both her parents but not before marrying William Doyle of County Kildare, with whom she had three children, two sons and a daughter. One of those sons, Gerald Doyle, inherited Ballysallagh from his grandfather Gerald Byrne in 1760. Two years after the death of Catherine Doyle her husband, Gerald Doyle’s father, had married again, his second wife being Frances Purcell of Usher’s Island, Dublin; with her, he had another three children, once more two sons and a daughter. However, neither Gerald Doyle nor his older brother Laurence married and in 1785 they sold their interest in Ballysallagh and its 450 acres to the family of their step-mother. Thus it remained in the possession of the Doyles, albeit not descended by blood from the original Purcells. Instead it belonged to the children of William Doyle’s second marriage, first another William Doyle, who also lived in Rutland Square, Dublin and died unmarried in 1847 and then Joseph Doyle, a doctor who served as Surgeon to the College at Maynooth, County Kildare. He likewise married a Purcell and the couple had a son John Joseph Doyle who inherited Ballysallagh and lived there until his death in 1890 at the age of 75. John Joseph’s son Gerald Doyle was the last of the family to live at Ballysallagh: following his death in 1939 for the first time the place was put on the market.
Despite Ballysallagh’s somewhat convoluted history of descent given above, the fact that the house did not pass beyond different branches of the same family for more than 200 years explains why it remained relatively unchanged after being first built in the early 18th century. There are a few decorative elements that were altered according to shifts in fashion and perhaps the advent of additional funds: the drawing room, for example, contains a white marble chimney piece that looks to be from the mid-19th century. Prior to that, in 1810 folding doors were introduced halfway back the entrance hall so as to separate it from the rear stairs. Above those doors is a splendidly wide fanlight (to provide more light to the front section of the hall should the doors be shut) and on an adjacent wall hangs a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze.
Internally the house follows a tripartite plan, with main reception rooms to right and left of the entrance hall and behind these smaller rooms, a study and butler’s pantry. The wooden staircase is accommodated in a full height extension to the rear of the main block and leads to a spacious first-floor landing, an especially pleasing feature in houses such as this, with four bedrooms, two on either side. Another staircase of Kilkenny limestone, also fitted into the rear extension, provides access to the basement which continues to hold the house’s kitchen and other service areas. Externally, the building has a simple but satisfying symmetry, of five bays and two storeys over a raised basement. Maurice Craig reproduced the facade in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and noted a number of distinctive features such as a limestone plat-band in place of a cornice beneath the steeply pitched roof (in fact, there is a cornice but partially obscured by the guttering), and the fact that the end quoins are bolder and better finished than those of the single-bay breakfront. The entrance is approached by a flight of limestone steps, its door having a Gothic-glazed fanlight that the present owners have copied for the small lunette window in the breakfront pediment.
In February 1940 Ballysallagh and some 117 acres were offered for sale, a poster produced by the auctioneers describing it as a ‘splendid stone-built residential and agricultural property.’ At the start of the following month, a two-day auction saw the dispersal of the house’s contents: a newspaper advertisement went through many of the lots, including in the entrance hall a ‘large Antique Hanging China Display Press, enclosed by two glazed panel doors of unique design, Ornamental Frieze and Fluted Columns.’ Either this failed to find a buyer or the difficulty of removing the cabinet from the wall was recognised. Whatever the explanation, it remains in place, unlike other pieces accumulated by successive generations of Purcells, Byrnes and Doyles, such as the drawing room’s ‘Splendid Round Mahogany table, with rope edge and claw feet’ or the dining room’s ‘Small Sheraton mahogany wine cooler, with brass mountings on castors.’ These meagre descriptions are all that remain to indicate how the house was furnished over the course of two centuries. The present owners bought Ballysallagh in 1987 and since then have worked without cease to bring the place to its present excellent condition: looking at it today, one might imagine the property had never changed hands. Extensive work has been undertaken both indoors and outside. With regard to the latter, new formal gardens have been laid out behind the house and a maple walk created leading to a small folly. In his Introduction to Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, Maurice Craig advised that the buildings featured had been chosen ‘for a combination of their architectural quality and the significance of their typology of the subject.’ Ballysallagh deserves attention and plaudits for the same reasons: even since the book first appeared quite a number of properties it covered have been lost. This makes Ballysallagh’s survival all the more precious.