Change is Constant

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It has long been commented that Mountainstown, County Meath is mis-named since its location in the midst of flat countryside is near neither a mountain nor a town. One ill-tempered Englishwoman in the 1840s wrote ‘At the beginning of this month we came to a place called Mountainstown, which name it must have been received from the inveterately stupid and perverse disposition of the Natives, because the place is situated in a low and flat Country, and there is not a Mountain to be seen within the Horizon.’ In fact the denomination most likely derives from an Anglicisation of the Irish for ‘Beside a Bog.’ It has borne the name for hundreds of years since the house here, soon due to celebrate the tercentenary of its construction, has always been known as Mountainstown. It is believed to have erected around 1720 for Richard Gibbons whose father Samuel acquired the estate in the late 17th century: in the same year he made a visitation of his diocses, Bishop Anthony Dopping of Meath recorded ‘Mr Gibbons and his wife came here in xmas 1693.’ Mr Gibbons’ son Richard is likewise recorded as being at Mountainstown in Faulkiner’s Dublin Journal in 1745, by which time the house would have been well finished.

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The oldest part of Mountainstown is a stocky rectangular block with six bay front, of two main storeys with dormer attic above and basement below. Kevin Mulligan has described the building as occupying ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion’ and like others employed the terms bucolic and naive when speaking of its design. Mountainstown’s facade is its most immediately striking feature, a determined effort on the part of Richard Gibbons to display awareness of current architectural trends even if these were employed in a somewhat unsophisticated manner. Four slender Ionic pilasters ascend to the top of the building but without the intervention of an entablature and frieze; instead they meet the roofline via a narrow moulded cornice. The two central pilasters support a pediment but again appear too slight for the task. The raised entrance is reached by flights of stone steps with iron work railings on either side, the Venetian doorcase once more being flanked by pairs of pilasters with sidelights above which sit half-urns while over the door itself is a stone cartouche featuring the arms of the Pollocks, the family that followed the Gibbonses at Mountainstown. The latter remained in possession of the estate until 1796 when it was sold to the John Pollock who had already been renting for some time.

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The history of Mountainstown’s next owners represents a familiar trajectory from merchant class to gentry, a route to which many families formerly aspired. The first John Pollock moved from Scotland to Ireland in 1732 and settled in Newry where he became involved in the burgeoning linen trade. His son continued in the same business and was commemorated by a tombstone in St Mary’s, Newry declaring he and his wife Elizabeth had been ‘parents of eleven children all of whom they lived to see established in the world.’ One of those children, another John, became a successful solicitor in Dublin and was appointed Transscriptor of the Court of the Exchequer. He also acted as agent for the Hills, Marquesses of Downshire, among the country’s largest landowners: at one time they had 115,000 acres, mostly but not exclusively in County Down. Hence being their agent was a profitable occupation and allowed John Pollock first to rent and then to buy Mountainstown although he retained a townhouse in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square so that his business could continue. Married to the daughter of a London banker, around 1811 he extended Mountainstown by adding a two-storey wing to the south-west of the older building. The ground floor of this new section contains a large drawing room with canted bay window and beyond it an equally substantial dining room. To the immediate right of the facade is a long kitchen wing and behind this lies a very substantial stable yard added by the next generation.

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Mountainstown is thus of two periods and two parts, each complementing the other. While the later portion of the house is relatively plain and very much in the Regency taste with deep tripartite windows, high ceilings and understated plasterwork, the earlier reflects the more ostentatious taste of the period in which it was built. The entrance hall, stairs and first floor landing retain their original decoration, moulded plaster panels with lugged heads forming tabernacle frames beneath a dentil cornice. The handsome stairs are wide and shallow, Doric balusters supporting the handrail and the side of each tread adorned with carved curls of foliage. As with the facade, this decoration represents the original builder’s interest in showing he was au courant with the latest fashions. The most unexpected feature can be found almost immediately inside the front door: what looks to be a death mask set into the ceiling. It is commonly believed that the man shown is Samuel Gibbons, perhaps placed here as an act of filial piety on the part of his son Richard. The rooms in the front portion of the house are noticeably smaller than those added in the 19th century, and some have angled corner chimneypieces: a marble panel on that in the former morning room featuring a knight in armour.

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In the mid-1820s Mountainstown was inherited by Arthur Hill Cornwallis Pollock, named after his father’s patron, Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire. Almost twenty years before he had been sent on a tour of Europe by his parents, presumably keen that their heir have the upbringing of a gentleman. Having visited France and Italy, he travelled as far as Russia, spending time at the Imperial court in St Petersburg with his friends Lords Royston and Somerton, before finally returning home in the second half of 1807. Four years later he married a cousin and devoted the rest of his life to agriculture and country pursuits. It was Arthur who created the spacious yard immediately to the north of the main house as he often won medals for his animals at agricultural shows. The Pollocks were always keen on hunting and Arthur had his own pack of hounds at Mountainstown as did many of his neighbours: eventually these were amalgamated into the Clonghill Hunt which later became the Meath. And so it has gone on until now, when the present generation has decided the moment is right to pass Mountainstown on to another family, perhaps one that will remain in the house for as long as have the Pollocks. It is always sad to see an historic property come on the market, especially in Ireland where relatively few families have stayed in the same place for so long. However, one should remember the words of Disraeli who in 1867 observed, ‘Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant.’ Whatever one’s personal feelings, the proposed departure of the Pollocks from Mountainstown, like that of the Gibbonses before them, is a reflection of that necessary change.

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12 comments on “Change is Constant

  1. Eoin says:

    Interesting read – was that the same John Pollock who was Clerk of the Crown for Leinster in 1798? Mention of him in ‘Secret Service under Pitt’.

  2. If I am not mistaken,the knight in armour on the Morning Room mantel is in fact the Lord Protector,Oliver Cromwell.

  3. oglach says:

    Outstanding. Brilliant writing and photography.

  4. June Barnes says:

    So interesting and informative – thank you – Can you identify the subject of img_2520 please?

  5. Stephen Pollock-Hill. says:

    As a distant cousin descended from John Pollock, the first john Pollock is described as “lieutenant of Foote, and gave over as did many Scottish sons of yeoman farmers. the Scottish Pollocks were growers of flax from newton Mearns and can be traced back to Robertus de Pollock a companion of Walter FitzAlan Steward or daifer to king David I of Scotland.. the boar seal dating from circa 1180 has a plaster cast in the British library i viewed last week.
    The granting of the “boar crest ” by a French king is erroneous. It confuses one of the Pollocks who was granted the French Fleur de lis by the french king for services,as yet unknown..
    But a Pollock ancestor told the hunting boar story to Sir Walterott who used the incident in Quentin Durward.
    I have checked with the French State archives ” Biblioteque Nationale ” and there was no Pollock Scottish mercenary or young nobleman at the Court of Louis Xi, but there was a Steward of Castlemilk!
    From flax growing to farming to weaving,.Irish linen has a worldwide reputation, even today, and several Irish Pollocks appear to have been weavers , dyers, and growers of flax.
    yeoman farmers, then lawyers, judges- Baron Pollock, Lord High Baron, then Churchmen ( Bishop Bertram Pollock, Bishop of Norwich 1910-1936), an Archdeacon of Chester, a Chaplain to the Bishop of Christchurch NZ, and Canons, even a couple of South African cricketers! Also a great athlete who still holds a World record set up in 1895 who inspired Harold Abrahams , of “Chariots of Fire” fame!!

  6. Kevin McGivern says:

    Thank you for this very interesting piece. As you mention John Pollock was a very prominent lawyer acting for the Gibbons family as well as the Downshires. I wonder if you know whether his correspondences were preserved, and if so where they now are deposited? Or if you have any suggestions about who might be able to help with this question.

    • Thank you for getting in touch. I fear John Pollock’s correspondence has long since disappeared but if you would like to contact me again in a couple of weeks I can make some enquiries (I am traveling at present…)

      • Kevin McGivern says:

        Thank you for your prompt attention. I’m aware of one collection, at PRONI (mostly I think relating to his role with the Downshires) but I wondered if there might be more in private hands or in an academic institution perhaps. He was undoubtedly an “important man” in his day. I hope you enjoy your travels and hope to be able to check back with you in a few weeks.

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