From Hugh Allingham’s Ballyshannon: Its History and Antiquities (1879): ‘At the close of 1739 this country was visited with a frost of extraordinary length and severity.It extended into the year 1740, lasting in all 108 days. A period of great scarcity and distress followed, and it was at that time that General Folliott, the owner of Wardtown, decided to build Wardtown Castle, thereby giving employment to the distressed classes of the neighbourhood. The remuneration they received during the progress of the work was sixpence per day and their food. Considering the value of money in those days, this was a liberal allowance and fully equivalent to 2s. per day at the present time. Before the erection of Wardtown Castle, the Folliott family had a residence on their property there.’
The first of the Folliotts to come to Ireland was Henry, born in Worcestershire in 1569 who, like many younger sons chose to seek his fortune by joining the army: by 1594 he is listed as serving in County Donegal. In the early 17th century he began to accumulate land in the area and two years before his death in 1622 he was created first Baron Folliott of Ballyshannon. He was succeeded by his nine-year old eldest son Thomas who, on his death, was succeeded by Henry, third and last Baron Folliott. When he died without a direct male heir in 1716, while the unentailed estates were divided between his five sisters, the entailed properties passed to a cousin, the man mentioned by Hugh Allingham, Lieutenant-General John Folliott. He in turn died without male heir and so his estate passed to another cousin, also John Folliott, whose family property was in neighbouring County Sligo. It is for this reason that from the later decades of the 18th century the Folliotts were no longer resident in Donegal.
The early 17th century Plantation of Ulster saw land in that part of the country divided between a number of different parties, including soldiers like the first Henry Folliott and other adventurers, the Established Church and Trinity College, Dublin. The last of these owned the parcel of some 700 acres on which Wardtown Castle stands but in 1616 leased it to the Folliotts who already held a lot of land in the vicinity. When the lease was renewed in 1733 it came with the stipulation that the lessee had to build ‘within ten years, a house of lime and stone forty foot by eighteen foot and one and a half storeys high.’ As can be seen, the house as constructed by General Folliott is very much larger than demanded. Wardtown Castle is of three storeys over raised basement, with three half-round towers on the front and one in the centre of the rear. On the ground floor, the central entrance hall accordingly has apsed ends and is flanked by two large rooms each measuring twenty-one feet square with windows on either side. Off these, to the front are perfectly round rooms both thirteen feet in diameter: on the domed ceilings of these survives delicate plasterwork (likewise some of the more robust plaster panelling in the former drawing room also remains). Behind the round rooms and similarly accessed from the reception areas are identically proportioned square stair halls on the walls of which can still be seen evidence of their former purpose. The design of Wardtown is rigorously governed by symmetry.
The question is: who was responsible for designing Wardtown? Writing in 1979, Alistair Rowan noted that the building is ‘similar to the small conceits by Vanbrugh but on a larger scale.’ Furthermore its exterior bears a striking resemblance to the likewise now-ruined Arch Hall, County Meath (for more of which, including many pictures, see The Untriumphal Arch, December 15th 2014). Although some alterations to the latter were undertaken in the 19th century (and the fenestration is somewhat different), it too is of three storeys over basement, is one room deep, has three half-round towers to the front,and circular rooms to the front at each end. If not twins, the houses are first-cousins and, speaking of kinship, owing to their Vanbrughian qualities, both buildings have been attributed to his relation, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Certainly the late Maurice Craig thought Pearce responsible for the pair. However, there is a problem with this attribution since Pearce died in 1733, the year in which Folliott signed his new lease with Trinity College, Dublin and at least six years before he initiated building work on the site. Might he have seen Arch Hall at some earlier date and simply ‘borrowed’ the design? Might there have been some, as yet unknown, connection with the Payne (or Paine) family then living at Arch Hall? We may never know but the links are too apparent to be overlooked.
As mentioned, during the 18th century the Folliott’s Donegal estates passed to diverse cousins so while they continued to be the leaseholders of this land from Trinity College, Dublin they did not live there. In Pigott’s Directory of 1824 a Dr Simon Sheil is listed as resident in Wardtown and just over a decade later the Likely family sublet the house from the Folliotts. They seem to have been the last occupants of the building, leaving it around a century ago. Thereafter it seems not to have been used and so fell into the present state of ruin. Even in this condition, it is a striking sight, on a slightly raised piece of land in western Donegal, overlooking the Erne estuary and with nothing remotely like it in the vicinity: it is scarcely possible to conceive the impact such a building must have made when first constructed. The scene remains memorable, a site to the immediate front being occupied by that embodiment of 20th century Irish architectural ambition, the bungalow, while the immediate rear is filled with material relating to the ‘adventure farm’ run here. Between the two stands Wardtown, a remarkable survivor from another age.