In the mid-1830s George Harpur, a merchant based in Drogheda, County Louth who had made his money in the salt trade, bought an estate called Killineer a few miles north of the town. A century earlier the land here had been granted by the local corporation on a 999-year lease to Sir Thomas Taylor, whose family lived at Headfort, County Meath. It then passed to the Pentlands whose main residence was to the immediate east at Blackhall. At some date in the 18th century a house was built on the property: it appears on early maps but little now remains other than one room which still retains sections of plaster panelling. Located to the rear of the walled garden, this space now serves as a toolshed.
Following his purchase, George Harpur embarked on the construction of a new house, on a site a little below the earlier one. Unfortunately we do not know who was the architect responsible for designing this building, which is not dissimilar from the Pentlands’ nearby Blackhall. Of two storeys over basement, it has a six-bay rendered façade centred on a Tuscan portico. Deep windows admit abundant light into the four ground-floor reception rooms which have elaborate plasterwork cornice friezes. But the most striking features of the house are its octagonal entrance hall with arched niches on four sides, and the splendid imperial staircase leading to that long-standing feature of the Irish country house: the first floor top-lit gallery from which bedrooms are accessed. One of the reasons we know so little about the house’s early years is that when George Harpur died in 1888 he left no heir and Killineer accordingly changed hands, passing into the ownership of another local family, the Montgomerys of Beaulieu. When it was next offered for sale in 1918, the auction notice advised prospective purchasers ‘Everything that taste or comfort could suggest for the embellishment of the house and demesne was done by the late owner regardless of expense.’
In addition to building himself a new house, George Harpur also laid out gardens at Killineer, beginning with a series of formal Italianate terraces that descend from the front of the main building. Eventually these reach a long serpentine stretch of water, created from what was shown on earlier maps as a relatively small pond. A series of islands on this lake help to break up the vista so that the prospect constantly alters as one wanders along paths meandering on either side. To the immediate east is a woodland garden, rich in ferns, mosses and other moisture-loving plants, while to the north west is a great laurel ‘lawn’, a piece of 19th century garden design once common but now more rare: that at Killineer is today the largest in the country. On this side also is a lakeside summer pavilion, its façade a miniature version of the house. Behind the stables and yards is the old walled garden which runs to an acre and a half and is still used for growing fruit, vegetables and flowers: it is here the remnant of the original Killineer can be found. Dotted around the grounds are garden ornaments originally made for other properties, some of which have since been lost, including St Anne’s in Clontarf, Dundalk House further north in County Louth, and Stackallen, County Meath. As today’s photographs testify, Killineer’s present owners keep the place in marvellous repair and make it a garden of earthly delights.