Awaiting Salvation


No site looks its best in torrential rain, but under these circumstances there is something especially melancholic about Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow. Over the past couple of decades, the historic gardens here have undergone a wonderful and welcome rebirth, but the house which has formed the centrepiece of the estate for over three centuries now stands a roofless shell. It is located on the site of an early Christian settlement, based around a hermitage established by St Mochorog, said to be an Englishman of royal birth who came to Ireland at the start of the 7th century. A monastic community remained here until Henry VIII’s dissolution of all such religious establishments, but some of the building’s foundations have been found under parts of the present garden at Kilmacurragh. Ownership of the lands were then disputed between the local Byrne family and various settlers. However, in 1697 Thomas Acton secured a lease on the property from the Parsons family, then as now based in Birr, County Offaly (where their gardens are likewise renowned). The original Thomas Acton – grandfather of the one already mentioned – is believed to have come to Ireland in the mid-17th century with the Commonwealth army, and like so many other of its members to have stayed because rewarded for his service with property here. In 1716 the younger Thomas Acton obtained from the then-Viscount Rosse ‘leases for lives renewable forever’ at Kilmacurragh; twenty years later his son William Acton married the Viscount’s cousin, Jane Parsons. Thereafter successive generations of Actons would live at Kilmacurragh and develop its gardens until the opening decades of the last century.





Almost from the moment of arrival at Kilmacurragh, the Actons seem to have been particularly interested in the improvement of their demesne. Presumably around the same period that he built the present house at the close of the 17th century, Thomas also laid out a formal Dutch-style park, with canals and formal avenues. He also created a forty-acre Deer Park. In turn his son William Acton laid out a two-mile beech avenue to celebrate his marriage to Jane Parsons in 1736. Fourteen years later she received a premium of £10 from the Dublin Society (founded less than two decades before) for the planting of ‘foreign trees’ and accordingly large numbers of these were given a place on the estate. In 1780 her son, another Thomas Acton, married Sidney Davis who would in turn receive grants from the same society for growing small plantations, using the money to acquire further rare species. Lt. Col. William Acton inherited the estate in 1817 and he undertook further work, both in the demesne and on the house. With regard to the former, he is believed to have built the walled garden with an orangery and ranges of glasshouses, as well as providing employment during the Great Famine by the restoration of the ha-ha that surrounded the old deer park. He also further added to the planting at Kilmacurragh, buying trees from a nursery established nearby at Dunganstown in 1780. When he died in 1854, the estate was inherited by his eldest son, once more Thomas, who did most to give the gardens their present appearance, not least by sweeping away the formal layout created by his forebears more than a century and a half earlier. Thomas Acton and his sister Janet worked closely with David Moore, then curator of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, and with his son and successor in the position, Sir Frederick Moore. It has been noted that Kilmacurragh during this period became an unofficial outpost for the Botanic Gardens, thanks to its climate and soil but also to its sympathetic owner who with his like-minded sibling travelled the world in search of plants to bring home to County Wicklow.





The fourth Thomas Acton never married and when he died in 1908 Kilmacurragh was inherited by his nephew Captain Charles Annesley Acton, another bachelor. He had little time to take care of the place since on the outbreak of the First World War he signed up for service and was killed in September 1915 while assisting another wounded soldier. Kilmacurragh duly passed to his only brother Major Reginald Thomas Annesley Ball-Acton who in turn was killed just eight months later at Ypres: his heir was a two-year old boy Charles (later a well-known music critic for The Irish Times). During his youth the house stood empty and the grounds lay neglected, but in 1932 the place was taken over by a German, Charles Budina, who successfully ran an hotel there. Unfortunately, following Charles Acton’s sale of Kilmacurragh in 1944 a legal dispute seems to have arisen over possession of the property which was eventually acquired by the Land Commission thirty years later. More recently the gardens have come under the care of the National Botanic Gardens, an ideal association given the long links between the two sites. Since then much wonderful work has been undertaken in the grounds to bring them back to peak condition. However the house, which suffered the consequences of two fires in 1978 and 1982, has fallen into a ruinous state. Much has been written about the building of Kilmacurragh, traditionally dated to 1697 when Thomas Acton first took a lease on the land here. However, a few years ago in the Irish Arts Review Peter Pearson, who had examined relevant family papers including Thomas Acton’s account book, proposed that the house was constructed about a decade later. Nevertheless it would still have been one of the first unfortified residences in this part of the country and it appears likely that William Robinson, the Surveyor General (who was paid £1.1.3d by Thomas Acton in 1704 for unspecified work) had a hand in its design. Stylistically Kilmacurragh is suggestive of Robinson’s work, not least a handsome doorcase that once provided access to the building which was originally of five bays and two storeys (with an attic window in the pedimented breakfront). Photographs of the interior when still intact show it to have been extensively panelled, with a staircase featuring barley-sugar balusters not unlike those found in the Red House, Youghal, County Cork and other contemporaneous houses. The wings on either side of the main block were added in the 1840s by Lt Col. William Acton. Alas, nothing of his work on the house, nor that of his predecessors, remains. Today only the outer walls survive to look especially dispiriting in the rain…

4 comments on “Awaiting Salvation

  1. Marti B. Sullivan says:

    I would like to be the caretaker as soon as few things are tended to…

  2. Day Cowperthwaite says:

    My daughter is widow of M. ACTON of the state of Texas. Genealogy of ACTON family is going to be enlighting. I did not realize ACTON is an Irish
    name.

  3. matt says:

    is it for sale im interested, like to bring it back to its former glory

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