The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, otherwise known as the Knights Templar was one of the Christian military orders established in Europe during the period of the Crusades, its ostensible function being to protect pilgrims visiting sacred sites in the Middle East. Established at the start of the 12th century, the order quickly grew in prestige, power and wealth, and established a presence in Ireland following the arrival of the Normans here. It soon acquired extensive estates in the country, although these were predominantly in the east and south, where Norman power was most effective. The Templars’ most westerly settlement was some twelve miles south of the port of Sligo where they built a castle. As is well known, at the start of the 14th century, Philip the Fair of France, who was by then heavily indebted to the Knights Templar, resolved to destroy their power – and therefore their financial hold on him – by taking advantage of the papacy then being resident in Avignon. Accordingly he leveled a series of charges against the order, including idolatry and homosexuality, which led to pope Clement V dissolving the Templars in 1312. Everywhere they had held land it then passed into the hands the relevant secular authority. In Ireland, while ostensibly the crown or another chivalric order benefitted from this unexpected property windfall, in practice a dominant local family was often able to seize control of the territory. This happened in County Sligo where the land formerly owned by the Knights Templar came into the hands of the O’Haras. They built a new castle here around 1360. In the 16th century the same lands, along with much more beside, were acquired by John Crofton, who had come here in 1565 with Sir Henry Sidney following the latter’s appointment as Lord Deputy of Ireland.
In 1665 Mary Crofton, great-granddaughter of John Crofton, married George Perceval, whose family had likewise come to have large property interests in Ireland. He was a younger son, but his wife Mary an heiress and so the estate once owned by the Knights Templar passed to the couple’s descendants who live there still. Originally they lived in the old castle which had been converted into a domestic residence in 1627, although then besieged and badly damaged in 1641. Repairs undertaken and extensions added, it served as a dwelling house for the Percevals over the next century. Then in the 1760s a new house was erected close by, the servants occupying the former residence. In 1825 Lt-Col. Alexander Perceval decided to embark on building afresh, this time on higher ground and in smart neo-classical taste. The architect responsible unknown, it forms the core of the present Temple House. The opening decades of the 19th century saw extensive building and rebuilding of country houses in Ireland, their owners having little idea of the catastrophe that was shortly to befall the country. During the Great Famine of the 1840s, the Percevals did their best to assist tenants on the Temple estate, the colonel’s wife Jane dying in January 1847 of ‘famine fever’ but not before leaving instructions ‘not to neglect the tenant families between my death and my funeral.’ Like so many other landowners, the Percevals were effectively ruined in the aftermath of the famine, and following the colonel’s death in December 1848 they were obliged to put the Temple estate up for sale.
The new owners of Temple, unlike their predecessors, showed little interest in the welfare of the tenants and embarked on a policy of evictions and land clearance. However, Alexander Perceval, youngest son of the old colonel, had made his fortune in the Far East, rising to become Taipan of Jardine Matheson and first chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce. In the early 1860s he bought back the Temple estate where he not only paid for a number of evicted families to return to their former homes, but also decided to enlarge the house built by his father. Three times the size of what it had been before, the building was designed by the London firm of Johnstone & Jeanes (and their only Irish commission) and looks not unlike a splendid gentleman’s club, its rooms all with high ceilings and bright interiors lit by expanses of plate glass windows. At the centre of the building rises a palatial staircase leading to equally vast bedrooms (one of which is known as the ‘half acre’). The exterior was all clad in crisply cut limestone, the entrance moved from the east to the north front where access is via an impressive porte-cochère. Temple House exudes abundant confidence and authority, and indicates that Alexander Perceval expected to enjoy his family estate for many years. It was not to be: in 1866 he caught sunstroke while fishing in the lake in front of the house and died aged 44, leaving a widow and young family. Despite this and subsequent setbacks – not least the death of the next male heir only two years after the birth of his son – the family managed to hold onto the regained estate and live there still. Having inherited their forebear’s entrepreneurial skills, the present generation of Percevals run a successful business providing country house accommodation at Temple House.