‘Therefore his servants said to him, “Let a young woman be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms, that my lord the king may be warm”.’ (1 Kings 1:2).
William Ponsonby-Barker of Kilcooley, County Tipperary was an ardent evangelical Christian and in the years prior to his death in 1877 he would habitually emulate the example of King David in the Old Testament, and take a young woman to bed with him – strictly for the purposes of keeping his elderly body warm. The human hot water bottle would, it is said, be chosen from among the housemaids lined up after evening prayers. In his book Twilight of the Ascendency (1987) Mark Bence-Jones tells that on one occasion, the maid selected by Ponsonby-Barker ‘offended his olfactory sensibilities, so he sprinkled her liberally from a bottle which he took in the dark to contain eau de cologne but which in fact contained ink!’ Of course it may be that the owner of Kilcooley was following the strictures of his late mother. According to the American Quaker Asenath Nicholson who recorded a visit to the estate in her 1847 book Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, ‘the pleasure of walking over these delightful fields is enhanced by the knowledge that his tenants are made so happy by his kindness. To every widow he gives a pension of £12 a year; and to every person injuring himself in his employment, the same sum yearly, as long as the injury lasts. His mother was all kindness, and her dying injunction to him was, “To be good to the poor”…His mother, whom he ardently loved, was buried in a vault on the premises; and his grief at her death was such that he left the domain for twelve months. He supports a dispensary for the poor, who resort to it twice a week, and receive medicine from a physician who is paid some sixty pounds a year for his attendance.’
From the 12th century onwards Kilcooley belonged to the Cistercian order which built a fine abbey there. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the land passed into the possession of the Butlers, Earls of Ormonde. In 1636 the twelfth earl (and future first Duke of Ormonde) in turn sold Kilcooley to the Norfolk-born judge Sir Jerome Alexander for £4,200. Following his death in 1670, the estate was bequeathed to a daughter Elizabeth Alexander, on the condition that she did not marry an Irishman. In the event her husband was another lawyer, William Barker who had been born in Essex: he had already been granted 3,300 acres in Limerick in 1667 and received a further 1,300 acres in Tipperary in 1678; three months prior to his marriage in June 1676 he was made a baronet, the first of four all confusingly bearing the same first name. Successive Sir William Barkers lived in the mediaeval Kilcooley Abbey, adapted as a private residence. However, each of them also seems to have considered the notion of building a new residence, only the last of the line doing so. On succeeding his father at some date on or before 1719, the second baronet thought to construct both an alternative house and an adjacent market town but in the event did neither. Following the marriage of his heir in July 1736 to Mary Quin of Adare Sir William wrote of plans to build ‘as fine and elegant a private gentleman’s seat as any in Europe and inland market as ye country could afford, instead of botching it now about old Abbey walls not proper adapted to be anything called polite’. But nothing happened either then or until around the time the last Sir William inherited Kilcooley on the death of his father in 1770. Ten years earlier he had married Catherine Lane and around this time was handed responsibility for the estate. A stone in the stable yard bearing the date 1762 certainly suggests work was done on the property then, so perhaps the core of the present house dates from the same period.
As built by the fourth Barker baronet, Kilcooley conformed to the Palladian style then beginning to go out of fashion; this certainly suggests an earlier date than c.1790 which was traditionally given. Owing to alterations made in the 19th century after a fire, it is difficult to see the original form of the house. Looking towards a lake created in 1789 at the cost of just over £442 the entrance front is of seven bays and two storeys over elevated basement. Arched links on either side lead to pedimented pavilions and these in turn link to quadrants giving access to service yards: rubble-filled niches and oculi visible beneath later render hint at the building’s earlier form. The garden front looks across parkland towards the romantic ruins of the old abbey. On this side, the house has a central breakfront of three bays broken up by four giant Ionic limestone pilasters and ending in a parapet supporting eagles and urns. Access on this side, as on the entrance front, is via a double flight of balustraded stone steps. Single bays on either side lead, again as on the other side of the house, to pedimented pavilions and thence to a further run of buildings, including a pretty hexagonal model dairy. The aforementioned fire – of which more below – gutted the central block of the house (Asenath Nicholson specifically mentions the loss of a fine library) but appears to have spared the wings. Thus it is possible to gain a sense of the interior of Kilcooley in these sections of the building. On one side, for example, there is a fine cantilevered stone staircase which looks to be 18th century (and although intended for use by servants is actually handsomer than that used by the owners). At the other end of the house are a couple of rooms with tall lugged doorcases and coved ceilings. One of these still retains its arabesque rococo stuccowork, as well as a tall, slender marble chimneypiece.
The strict Christian beliefs of William Ponsonby-Baker may have led to the fire that destroyed the central block of Kilcooley. One day in 1839 a woman arrived at the house with a small child who, she said, had been fathered by the butler, a Mr Ashby. So shocked was Ponsonby-Barker by his employee’s behaviour that he immediately fired Ashby: as the house maids had already discovered, there were consequence to being in service at Kilcooley. In revenge, Ashby packed the chimney in the library with paper and set it alight. As a result, the building was gutted and as Asenath Nicholson commented ‘An elegant library was lost’ along with many of the other contents. Kilcooley’s owner set about rebuilding the house, where work was completed in 1843. Certain alterations were made at this time to both exterior and interior. Regarding the latter, canted bay windows were inserted on the ground floor of both the entrance and garden fronts (originally those on the main facade were bows), and a second storey with balustrade loggias added to the links between main block and wings, as a result of which the building gained space but lost some of its lightness. Internally, a new main cantilevered stone staircase was created to one side, lit by an arched window on the return. An enfilade of reception rooms overlooks the mediaeval abbey on the garden side; these appear to be following the original house’s ground plan, although a portion of the central room was shaved off to create an antechamber. Meanwhile to the front one finds the dining room and library: both of these are half-paneled in oak, as is the entrance hall between them. This last is unquestionably Kilcooley’s most striking feature, an enormous double-height space with first floor gallery, the whole lit by a glazed dome: interestingly hot water pipes run around the base of the dome, evidently in an effort to ensure the gallery wasn’t too cold. Below runs a vast basement, with a central passage providing access to a wealth of storage and staff rooms, including in one of the wings a lofty kitchen, again probably part of the original building as it still has a central octagon through which smoke would once have escaped.
More on Kilcooley next Monday…