Escaping a Family Curse

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In 1824 the former courtesan Harriette Wilson advised a number of her ex-lovers that in return for a consideration of £200 she would omit their names from the memoirs she was then writing. The Duke of Wellington is famously said to have retorted ‘Publish and be damnned.’ He duly appeared in the book, as did another Irishman, James Lennox Naper. By the time the work appeared Naper was a respectably married man living on his estate in County Meath. However, the tale recounted by Wilson concerned his life more than a decade earlier, when he was a young Member of Parliament living in London and conducting a liaison with the author’s friend and sister-courtesan Julia Johnstone. The latter was at least fourteen years older than her lover (Harriette Wilson thought he looked more like her son) and she did not find him especially attractive. Nevertheless, she was urged by Wilson to respond to his ardours, not least for the sake of Johnstone’s many children: ‘”Napier [sic] is your man”,’ Wilson told her. ‘”Since you could be unchaste to gratify your own passions, I am sure it cannot be wrong to secure the comfort and protection of six beautiful children.” “But Napier’s vanity makes me sick,” retorted Julia, impatiently. “The possession of my person would not satisfy him. He wants me to declare and prove that I love him; and the thing is physically impossible”.’ Eventually she overcame her reluctance, but the match was never very happy. On one occasion Wilson discussed the matter with her sister Fanny, ‘”Oh, he is horridly stingy,” answered Fanny, “and Julia is obliged to affect coldness and refuse him the slightest favour till he brings her money; otherwise she would get nothing out of him. Yet he seems to be passionately fond of her, and writes sonnets to her beauty, styling her, at forty, although the mother of nine children, ‘his beautiful maid’.”‘ The affair only ended with Johnstone’s death in 1815.

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In 1593 the Dorset-born judge Robert Napier was knighted and sent to Ireland as Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer. He appears to have been singularly inept at his job, forever complaining about this country’s climate and seeking a better position on the other side of the Irish Sea. In 1600 he travelled to England and thereafter refused to return to Ireland. Accordingly he was suspended from office in 1601 and replaced the following year. Nonetheless, during the short period he held office, Sir Robert managed to found the family’s fortunes here, and in the third quarter of the 17th century his grandson James Naper further improved it by marrying Dorothy Petty, sister of Sir William Petty whose own descendants would eventually become Marquesses of Lansdowne. A series of strategic marriages meant that the Napers eventually came to own some 180,000 acres of land, with their main seat being at Loughcrew, County Meath. This was the estate inherited by Charles Lennox Naper who, despite being so stingy to poor Julia Johnstone, was believed to enjoy an annual income of more than £20,000. A considerable amount of it was ultimately spent on Loughcrew, where around the time Naper’s name featured in Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, he commissioned a substantial new residence designed by Charles Cockerel.

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Naper’s splendid house is no more: over the course of less than 100 years Loughcrew suffered three fires and was not rebuilt after the last of these. Only part of the building’s portico was re-erected in recent years, while adjacent outbuildings were converted to provide accommodation. The greater part of the estate has likewise gone, and little remains to demonstrate the former wealth of this family. Yet here and there in the surrounding landscape are remnants indicating how extensive was the demesne and how ambitious once its owners’ notions. Today’s pictures show the Rustic Lodge, one of at least six formerly marking approaches to the house, each of them different in design from the others. As its name indicates, this lodge is resolutely pastoral in concept, and might almost have been conceived as a nest in which Naper could conduct subsequent romances. Believed to date from c.1840 the two-storey building’s ground floor features a blind arcade resting on rusticated stone piers, with openings for door and mullioned casement windows. The upper level is of yellow brick, with a patterned roof of slates and tiles, the two chimney stacks being again in rusticated stone. What remains of the interior suggests a similar character, the chimneypieces once more in rusticated stone and the entrance hall’s coved wooden ceiling almost alpine in spirit. The prettiest feature is a spiral staircase tucked into a corner of the former sitting room whence it sinuously climbs to the first floor before concluding in a final coquettish swirl of iron balusters. Now in poor condition, with the surrounding woodland encroaching ever nearer and the climate Sir Robert Napier so disliked having an impact on the fabric, one worries this lodge, like much else at Loughcrew, might be lost forever. It is said the main house on the estate suffered from a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ All being well, the Rustic Lodge will escape this fate and enjoy a happier future.

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3 comments on “Escaping a Family Curse

  1. Some of these lodges are wonderfully ornate in the simplest of ways. Just look at that delightful staircase!

  2. Finola says:

    Great piece – it’s a wonderful cottage and the background is fascinating.

  3. Kelly says:

    fascinating story!

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