‘It were also to be wished that even our gentlemen would in their country-seats imitate Colonel Newburgh, a great improver in the Co. of Cavan, who as well as several others, does not only use stucco work, instead of wainscot, but has arched his fine dwelling-house, and all his large office-houses, story over story, and even all their roofs in the most beautiful manner without any timber.’
Samuel Madden, Reflections and Resolutions Proper for the Gentlemen of Ireland, Etc. 1738.
‘This seat, for beauty and magnificence, may vie with any in Ireland. There is an ascent to it by several terraces from the river, which are adorned with ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers. The house is about 140 feet in front – it is made to last for ever – the roofs and all the apartments being vaulted, and curiously finished with stucco work; and yet scarce any house in Ireland has so brisk and lively an aspect – the just mixture of the brick and hewn stone, and the proportion of the parts adding life to one another; the large court and offices also behind it are all vaulted. It is not easy to pass by this fine seat without delaying at it, but to do justice to the house, its various apartments, gardens, vistas, avenues, circular walks, roads and plantations rising to the tops of all the hills around, would require a description that would draw me too far from my present design.’
Rev. William Henry, Upper Lough Erne, 1739.
‘The affairs of Ireland being sometime happily settled, the gentlemen of the country now began to quit their cottages, and build mansion houses, suitable to their estates and fortunes. The arts hitherto unknown in Ireland, architecture in particular, began to receive encouragement; of which no gentleman of private fortune gave juster and more useful specimens than Mr Newburgh. His dwelling house as well as offices being arched throughout, in the upper as well as lower stories are thereby of course, free from the danger and power of fire. The compliment that the late Dean Swift paid to Mr Newburgh on the planning such a singular but useful edifice, was as uncommon, as there is reason to believe it sincere, viz. That it was not only the best, but the only house he had seen in Ireland.’
Particulars relating to the Life and Character of the Late Brockhill Newburgh Esq. ,1761.
As part of James I’s plantation of Ulster, in 1609 John Taylor of Cambridge received a grant of 1,500 acres in an area of County Cavan called Aghieduff. Here he established the town of Ballyhaise and, according to a mid-19th century report, ‘built a strong Bawn of lime and stone for his own residence, on the site of the present castle, which, from it position, commanded the ford over the river.’ Further English and Scottish settlers were encouraged to move into the area and when Nicholas Pynner undertook his government-commissioned survey of the province’s plantation in 1618-19 he found eighteen such families living at Ballyhaise ‘and everything around the infant colony appeared in the most prosperous condition.’ The disturbances of the 1640s were a setback to the enterprise but by the time of Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1660, Ballyhaise’s settlement was once more progressing. John Taylor had married the daughter and heiress of Henry Brockhill of Allington, Kent and their elder son was duly christened Brockhill Taylor; he served as Member of Parliament for the borough of Cavan in the 1630s. On his death he left no son but two daughters one of whom, Mary inherited the Cavan estate. She married Thomas Newburgh and the couple had several sons, the second of which, Colonel Brockhill Newburgh, was the next owner of Ballyhaise since his elder brother died in 1701 without heirs. During the Williamite Wars, Colonel Newburgh had raised a company of soldiers and participated in several battles in support of what would prove to be the winning side. In 1704 he was appointed High Sheriff of Cavan and served as an M.P. from 1715 to 1727, as well as acting as chairman of the local linen board. However it is for the building projects he undertook on his Ballyhaise estate that Colonel Newburgh is best remembered. In 1703 he and another local landowner rebuilt the bridge here as an eight-arched stone structure, and during the same period he also embarked on a grand scheme to lay out a new town, described after his death as being ‘in the form of a Circus, the houses all arched, with a large circular market house in the center; a building, in the opinion of some good judges, not unworthy the plan of Vitruvius or Palladio; and which (if we may be allowed to compare small things with great) bears no distant resemblance to the Pantheon at Rome, but with this difference, without the opening of the convex roof at the summit, contrived to give light to the latter.’ Unfortunately in 1736 the market house collapsed and had to be rebuilt; in 1837 it was reported to be ‘an arched edifice built of brick and of singular appearance.’ It has since gone and the present market house, with ill-considered uPVC windows, does little to improve what remains of Colonel Newburgh’s once-elegant and innovative programme of urban planning.
The near-contemporaneous accounts carried above give us an idea of Colonel Newburgh’s ambitious developments of his own house and grounds at Ballyhaise, and the impact these made on visitors to the area. The gardens, it is clear, were an elaborate baroque arrangement of ‘ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers’ spread across a sequence of terraces that descended to the river before the land rose up once more on its far side. As for the house, its architect has long been the subject of speculation. It used to be attributed to Castle, but given that Colonel Newburgh is believed to have been born c.1659 (and died in 1741) and that certain elements of the building, not least the red brick used in its construction, are associated with Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, he now seems more likely to have been responsible. Ballyhaise was probably constructed on the site and incorporated parts of an earlier dwelling dating back a century to around the time of John Taylor’s arrival; one imagines this to have been defensive in character. Colonel Newburgh’s house, on the other hand, projects its owner’s assurance and the more tranquil character of the time.
The core of the building was of two storeys over half-basement, and of seven bays. As already mentioned red brick was used except for the three centre bays which are of limestone with Ionic over Doric pilasters below a full entablature supporting a pediment. The narrow entrance is reached at the top of a flight of steps, a garland of carved flowers fitted beneath the door case’s segmental pediment containing a scallop shell. In 1746 the architect and designer Thomas Wright who was then visiting Ireland as a guest of Lord Limerick (see Do the Wright Thing, July 28th 2014) made a sketch of the front of Ballyhaise as it then was. This can be seen above and indicates the house was the centrepiece of a Palladian scheme extended on either side by quadrants before terminating in pavilion wings. None of this remains today and the interior has likewise undergone changes since first completed when it was vaulted throughout, allegedly as a precaution against fire. What remain largely unaltered are the entrance hall and rooms immediately on either side; one of these, the so-called Peacock Room, contains wall paper from the first half of the 19th century, covered in varnish at some later date but otherwise in good condition. To the rear of the entrance hall is the room which best evokes Colonel Newburgh’s house, a small oval saloon. Its walls covered in plaster panelling beneath a shallow coffered dome, the saloon contains a simple Kilkenny marble chimneypiece and two windows on either side of what surely must once have been an opening onto a balcony at the centre of the projecting bow.
Ballyhaise remained in the possession of the Newburgh family until around 1800 when it was sold to William Humphreys, a Dublin merchant who had made his fortune in the wood trade. By then the house must have looked very old-fashioned and it was therefore subjected to a complete overhaul. The quadrants and wings were demolished and the main block extended on either side to hold drawing and dining room respectively, both lit by generous tripartite windows. The contrast between these and the original early 18th century windows is only one of a number of incongruities, accentuated on the exterior by the unmistakable difference in tone of brick. Inside rather narrow passages provide access to the main reception rooms which are large and mostly plain although the overdoors carry floral friezes. The main staircase, squeezed into too tight a space, leads to the first floor former bedrooms which are also simple although some, such as that immediately above the oval saloon, retain their Georgian decoration and chimney piece. Mr Humprheys’ heirs enjoyed the advantages of his wealth for barely a century before it ran out and the house was once more sold, this time to the state which in 1905 bought the estate to run as an agricultural college. Ballyhaise has served this purpose every since, a mixed blessing for the place. Inevitably there have been losses, not least to the surrounding parkland where no evidence of Colonel Newburgh’s fantastical gardens survive; of course, these may well have been swept away when the property was modernised by Mr Humphreys. Recent additions to the building stock in the grounds are pedestrian in design, but the old stable blocks remain and have suffered relatively little compromise. And most importantly the house itself survives and has of late benefitted from remedial works, particularly to the roof. Not all is as was when Colonel Newburgh embarked on his improvements but the words of the Rev. William Henry written in 1739 still ring true: Ballyhaise appears to have been ‘made to last for ever.’