Here the River is Beautified

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In 1739 an Anglican clergyman called William Henry wrote a descriptive account of the area around Ulster’s Upper Lough Erne in which he mentioned that a river (which he calls ‘of Ballyhaise’ but which is now known as the Annalee) ‘ murmurs by Rathkenny, the seat of the Clements’ family. Here the river is beautified by an elegant house, improvements and large plantations on the southern shore, and on its northern bank by extensive gardens and terraces.’ It appears that Daniel Clements, originally from Warwickshire, came to Ireland in the 1640s as a soldier and by 1657 was in possession of the estate of almost 2,000 acres at Rathkenny, County Cavan which remained in the possession of his descendants (whose name in the 19th century became Lucas-Clements) until sold just a few years ago. His son Robert succeeded to the property in 1680 and remained there until his own death in 1722. One of Robert’s sons was Nathaniel, of whom mention has been made here before (see A Man of Taste and Influence, August 3rd 2015).

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The Clements family would seem to have built a house for themselves on the south bank of the river which bisected their property. Nothing is known of the appearance or character of this building since it was demolished, likely around the late 1820s when work began on a new residence. This neo-classical block was designed by William Farrell who was the architect for a number of other such places in the vicinity. A sunken lawn to the immediate east appears to indicate where was the previous house but directly across the river is a survivor from the earlier property: a terraced walled garden. Today this is approached by a narrow concrete bridge but presumably something more elegant once offered access, since the garden itself is rather splendid. Cut limestone walls support banks on either side of limestone gate piers: paths to the immediate left and right lead to enclosing red brick walls which, on the river frontage, conclude in tall piers topped with urns. A gate to the east leads beyond the wall to the remains of a small pavilion built on the water’s edge; only one wall of this remains with a gothic arched window at its centre. One has a sense of what this little building must have been like since at the top and centre of the main terraces (supported by a sequence of low brick walls) is a summer house. Flanked by quadrant walls it is in the gothick style, constructed of brick with stone quoins, a battlemented parapet and arched windows on each side of the door. Inside is a single high-ceilinged room which once had further windows, since blocked up, and a chimneypiece which has gone. To the rear of the building there is access to another room below: one imagines this was used by servants looking after the needs of those upstairs.

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Relatively little is known of the history of the walled garden at Rathkenny: Lucas-Clements lore proposed that it dated to 1695, which means construction soon after Robert Clements returned from England (he had been attainted by James II’s parliament in 1689 and fled to England) and around the time he became high sheriff of County Cavan. Nothing like it survives in this part of the country, but evidently at one point it was not the only such terraced garden. In 1739 the aforementioned Rev. Henry wrote of Ballyhaise, some nine miles to the west, ‘‘This seat, for beauty and magnificence, may vie with any in Ireland. There is an ascent to it by several terraces from the river, which are adorned with ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers.’ Designed for Colonel Brockhill Newburgh, probably in the third decade of the 18th century, and attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, the main house at Ballyhaise is of red brick with cut stone dressings: with later additions the building survives although the river-fronting terraced gardens are long gone (for more on Ballyhaise, see Made to Last For Ever, March 9th 2015). Then barely three miles to the east of Rathkenny is Bellamont Forest (La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st 2013), another red-brick and stone house almost certainly designed by Pearce, and then a few miles further north again are the remains of the former early 18th century stables at Dartrey, County Monaghan (Now Unstable, October 1st 2014), once more employing the same materials. One has the impression that even if the same architect was not involved in all these neighbouring estates, the same spirit was at work, and the same influences and tastes being shared. More research remains to be done in this area but meanwhile the terraced gardens at Rathkenny are a rare survivor from the early Georgian period. Thankfully the property’s new owner appreciates their significance and is ensuring that they will continue to offer us an insight into early 18th century horticultural design.

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