By Ambition Hewn

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From the Dublin Penny Journal, December 13th 1834:
‘Sir, Permit me through the medium of the Dublin Penny Journal an opportunity of giving the public a brief description of the situation and scenery of Ballysaggartmore, the much improved residence of Arthur Keiley, Esq, situate one mile west of Lismore, on the north side of the river Blackwater. The porter’s lodge at the entrance to the avenue is composed of cut mountain granite or free stone, of a whitish colour, variegated with a brownish strata, which gives the whole a rich and pleasing appearance; it consists of a double rectangular building, in the castellated style, flanked by a round tower at either end, through which is a passage and carriage-way of twelve feet in the centre, over which is a perpendicular pointed arch, enriched with crockets and terminated with a finial; the buildings at either side of the gateway, although similar, form a variety in themselves; and the situation is so disposed as not to be seen until very near the approach; the gate is composed of wrought and cast iron; and is, I will venture to assert, the most perfect gothic structure formed principally of wrought iron, in the kingdom. It was executed by a native mechanic, and cost about one hundred and fifty pounds. Passing onward through the avenue, the road, which is perfectly level, leads through a beautifully romantic wood, neatly planted with all varieties of fir, and other forest timber; and is naturally enriched by a limpid mountain stream, which, after passing over some very considerable rocks, and gliding over the glen, falls immediately into the Blackwater; over this stream, which in winter is often very rapid, stands the bridge of which the prefixed engraving is a correct representation, consisting of three gothic arches, surmounted with richly embrazured battlements. A group of towers, embracing almost every shape and style of Gothic architecture, is erected at either end of the bridge; and the roadway leads under two very pretty obtuse Gothic arches. The greatest novelty in the whole is a round tower, erected on one of the arches. The stone used in the building has an agreeable reddish tint, and is all vermiculated, or, in other words, is a rusticated structure, which gives it somewhat the appearance of antiquity; this and the gate-house, was designed and built under the instruction of Mr John Smyth. Almost adjoining the bridge is a pretty tunnel, through which a road is conducted from the town to the upper grounds; and the avenue, which leads onward to the house, has nothing more to boast of than a continuation of neatly disposed wood and shrubbery.’

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At some date in the late 18th or early 19th century land running to some 8,500 acres around Ballysaggartmore, County Waterford was bought from George Holmes Jackson of Glenmore by John Kiely (also sometimes spelled Keily or, in the Dublin Penny Journal, Keiley). On his death in 1808, this property passed to a younger son, Arthur. The best part of the Kiely estates went to Arthur’s elder brother , also called John Kiely, who inherited Strancally, further down the Blackwater river. There he commissioned the building of a new castle from the brothers George and James Pain. John Kiely junior had apparently visited Lough Cutra, County Galway (see Domat Omnia Virtus, January 27th 2014) built a few years earlier by the Pains and accordingly ordered something similar for himself, even though advised that owing to the nature of Strancally’s site it would be necessary ‘to move a mountain in order to make the ground high enough.’ Seemingly it took forty men two years to achieve this enterprise. Arthur Kiely meanwhile, on returning from the Napoleonic Wars in which he had fought, built himself a house in the grounds of Ballysaggartmore. Old photographs indicate this property looked not unlike a great many others of the period, being of two storeys with a bow at one end and a three-storey belvedere over the entrance. According to a later occupant, the building’s principal fault was a lack of internal corridors, meaning it was necessary to pass from one room to the next in order to move about the house. Nevertheless, one has the impression that Arthur Kiely was a man of social aspirations since in 1843 he changed his surname to Kiely-Ussher. (The Usshers were a long-established family in the area to whom the Kielys were related through their mother). This may have been at the instigation of his wife Elizabeth Martin of Ross House, County Galway (a great-aunt of the author Violet Martin). It has always been proposed that the elaborate building programme upon which Arthur Kiely embarked in the 1830s was driven by his wife’s ambition to outstrip her in-laws at Strancally. Of course she might also have been inspired by Lismore Castle where extensive work had already been initiated by the sixth ‘Bachelor’ Duke of Devonshire.

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It would seem that the Kielys’ ambitious building works of the early 1830s stretched their financial resources. Thus although there were plans to rebuild the main house in an equally lavish fashion, this did not come to pass. Once the new lodges and castellated bridge were finished, a programme of ‘improvement’ began on the estate, mostly involving the clearance of existing tenants and their modest cottages. And then came the following decade’s years of famine during which remaining tenants were unable to pay rents and found themselves treated harshly by their landlord. Arthur Kiely did not suspend reduce or suspend rent, as had others in his position around the country, but used non-payment as a justification for eviction and the demolition of any dwelling. In May 1847 a reporter from the Cork Examiner arrived in the area to see how people were faring. ‘Arriving at Ballysaggartmore,’ he wrote, ‘an awful sight was before my eyes, I found twelve to fourteen houses levelled to the ground. The walls of a few were still standing but the roofs were taken off, the windows broken in, and the doors removed. Groups of famished women and crying children still hovered round the place of their birth, endeavouring to find shelter from the piercing cold of the mountain blast, cowering near the ruins or seeking refuge beneath the chimneys. The cow, the house, the wearing apparel, the furniture, and even in extreme cases the bed clothes were pawned to support existence. As I have been informed the whole tenantry, amounting with their families to over 700 persons, on the Ballysaggartmore estate, are proscribed.’ By contrast, John Kiely at Strancally Castle was described in the same newspaper as displaying liberality to the local poor ‘commensurate with his extensive property. He has, at present and for the last season, employed the people, is busily and solely engaged in diffusing comfort and plenty among them…’ Understandably, Arthur Kiely’s behaviour at Ballysaggartmore inflamed opinion in the district and soon afterwards an attempt was made to shoot him as he entered the estate through the gates of that smart new lodge: the would-be assasin failed in his mission and fled on foot. A group of local gentry then offered a reward of £100 to anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest of the parties responsible. Seven men were tried, found guilty and deported to Tasmania. If the Kielys were already unpopular in the area, this incident only made them even more so. While circumstances for the country gradually began to improve, the same was not the case for this particular household.

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In the aftermath of the famine, the Kielys’ fortunes never recovered, not least because there were no tenants left to provide them with an income. By 1854 Ballysaggartmore was being offered for sale through the Encumbered Estates Court but failed to find a new owner: one suspects the place’s unhappy history deterred potential purchasers. Finally in 1861 it was put on the market again and the main house and surrounding land were bought by William Morton Woodroofe: Arthur Kiely-Ussher died, not much mourned, the following year. The Woodroofes remained at Ballysaggartmore until the early years of the last century when the property was sold to the Hon Claud Anson, a younger son of the second Earl of Lichfield. Hitherto a rancher in Texas, in 1901 the Hon Claud married Lady Clodagh de la Poer Beresford, daughter of the fifth Marquess of Waterford and it is most likely for this reason that the couple chose to settle in her native county. However, they were not to enjoy the place for long because in 1922 Ballysaggartmore House was destroyed by fire. In any case by then the Ansons’ funds had likewise run out, according to Patrick Cockburn (a godson of their daughter) owing to ‘Claud’s overenthusiastic investment in Russian bonds prior to the Revolution.’ The house stood empty and derelict until pulled down some decades later. The front lodges, however, remained occupied, seemingly until the 1970s, after which they too were abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. Now Ballysaggartmore is a public park, with walkways through the woodlands, and all that remains of the Kielys’ architectural and social pretensions are the buildings celebrated in December 1834 by the Dublin Penny Journal. Today they serve as a monument to misplaced ambition.

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4 comments on “By Ambition Hewn

  1. Thank you Robert, this is a very interesting article.I visited Ballysaggartmore many years ago when the lodges still had doors and there was leaded glass in the windows.The IAA Dictionary of Irish Architects casts doubt on the attribution of these works to John Smyth. He was listed as a gardener in 1837. Ballysaggartmore strikes me as the work of a very accomplished professional, or professionals,can the brothers Pain be ruled out?

    • Dear Aidan,
      Thank you for your remarks. Yes, there is suspicion that the buildings at Ballysaggartmore are rather too sophisticated in design and execution to have been created by a gardener who is otherwise uncredited with any such work. On the other hand, they have never been attributed to the Pains either singly or jointly. And the other curiosity is that the castellated bridge and lodges are quite different in character, almost as though not designed by the same person. The only source of information is that article in the Dublin Penny Journal, but perhaps something else will turn up to enlighten us…

  2. Jane O'Halloran says:

    Fascinating piece. Is there any record of what became of those wrought-iron gates?

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