Arch Hall, County Meath, the house shown above, is a tantalising mystery. Who was the architect? When was it built? And for whom? Answers to all these questions, and others, have been proposed and while convincing they cannot be absolutely verified. Today what remains of Arch Hall stands on flat ground in the middle of open fields, and the greater part of the ornamental park with which it was once surrounded has been lost. A painting from 1854 by the Yorkshire-born artist James Walsham Baldock depicts the wife of Arch Hall’s then-owner Samuel Garnett and the couple’s two young sons on horseback with the house visible behind. Evidently at the time it was surrounded by a belt of mature trees but most of these have now gone leaving the building isolated and even more exposed to the elements than would otherwise be the case. At some date obviously it was abandoned and left to fall into ruin but – another question – when?
Arch Hall appears to derive its name from the rustic arch lying some distance to the south of the house and serving as point of access to the original avenue. Placed on an axis and intended to offer an unexpected vista of the property, the arch is composed of a single broad entrance with pinnacle above and flanking buttresses. From this point Arch Hall looks like a very substantial building, but the impression is deceptive because despite rising three storeys over basement the house was only one room deep. Its most striking feature is the nine-bay facade which on either side concludes in cylindrical bows and is centred on a larger, three-bay semi-circular bow. This has a handsome stone pedimented Gibbsian doorcase but the rest of the building was constructed of locally-produced red brick. At some – also unknown – date in the 19th century, the exterior was covered in cement render marked out to imitate cut stone. Presumably at the same time the topmost storey windows were paired in Romanesque style and Italianate sills added, while the end bows were capped with conical roofs presumably in an effort to make the place resemble a French château. Inside the front door was a large hall with curved ends and reception rooms on either side, each measuring some five and a half metres square. These in turn gave access to small circular rooms in the front corners. Despite long exposure, the two end rooms retain traces of their decorative plasterwork, that on the western flank somehow still having a shallow saucer dome with plaster coffering and egg-and-dart moulding. Almost all the rear of the house has been lost, as well as part of the front wall, making Arch Hall’s long-term survival unlikely.
For a number of reasons the design of Arch Hall is usually ascribed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Believed to have been born at some date in the late 1690s in County Meath, Pearce was the son of an English general and an Irish mother (her father was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1676-77). Most importantly for his son’s future career, General Edward Pearce’s first cousin was Sir John Vanbrugh. The latter appears to have had an influence on the young architect, if only stylistically, but Pearce’s work in Ireland was also shaped by time spent in mainland Europe in 1723-24 during which he studied Palladio’s buildings in the Veneto. Thus while essentially a classicist, he sometimes liked to feature elements of the baroque. Such is the case with Arch Hall if indeed it was designed by Pearce. Another Irish house, alas now also a ruin, with which it has strong similarities is Wardtown Castle, County Donegal. Built for John Folliott, Wardtown is deeper than Arch Hall but, as Maurice Craig noted in 1996, it shares ‘the Vanbrughian feature of cylindrical towers and semi-circular projections.’ In fact the design of the two houses is so alike, the inevitable conclusion is that either they were by the same hand or one was a copy of the other.
So when was Arch Hall built, and for whom? Sir Edward Lovett Pearce died in 1733 so if he were the house’s architect, work on its construction would most likely have begun before that date. At the time, the townland of which it is part, Newtown-Clongill was owned part-owned by the Payne or Pain(e) family: a deed of 1714 records the transfer of 510 acres in the area from John Raphson to William Paine. In 1737 his granddaughter Anne Paine married Benjamin Woodward of Drumbarrow, near Kells, County Meath. Her settlement included the town and lands of Clongill and Newtown-Clongill. Somehow by the early 19th century the property had transferred into the ownership of another local family, the Garnetts who were associated with a number of houses in the county, not least Williamstown and Summerseat. The first of them to live at Arch Hall was John Pain Garnett, second son of Samuel Garnett of Summerseat. John Pain Garnett’s middle name would imply some kind of connection with the previous residents but there appears to be none: the Garnetts tended to marry cousins, or else members of the Rothwell and Wade families. Arch Hall was subsequently inherited by John Pain’s son, another Samuel Garnett who in 1841 married Marianne Tandy: it is she and the couple’s two sons who appear in the 1854 painting by James Walsham Baldock. Burke’s 1871 Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland list the family as still in residence, but at some date thereafter they must have left and the place began its slide into dereliction. But when and why was Arch Hall permitted this most untriumphant end? So many unanswered questions…