On August 25th 1732, the future Mrs Delany (then the merrily widowed Mrs Pendarves) embarked on a journey from Navan, County Meath to Cootehill, County Cavan. She wrote in her journal, ‘travelled through bad roads and a dull, uninhabited country, till we came to Cabaragh, Mr Prat’s house, an old castle modernized, and made very pretty: the master of it is a virtuoso, and discovers whim in all his improvements. The house stands on the side of a high hill; has some tall old trees about it; the gardens are small but neat; there are two little terrace walks, and down in a hollow is a little commodious lodge where Mr Prat lived whilst his house was repairing. But the thing that most pleased me, was a rivulet that tumbles down from rocks in a little glen, full of shrub-wood and trees; here a fine spring joisns the river, of the sweetest water in the world.’
The ‘Mr Prat’ to whom Mrs Pendarves refers was Mervyn Pratt, a sometime Member of the Irish Parliament representing County Cavan. His father, Joseph Pratt, had been one of two brothers who moved from Leicestershire to Ireland in the mid-17th century, both of them settling in County Meath. However, Joseph made an advantageous marriage to Elizabeth, only daughter and heiress of Col. Thomas Cooch (or Couch) who owned estates in Counties Donegal and Cavan. When he died in 1699, he left his property in the latter county to his grandson Mervyn Pratt, then aged 12. The heir duly settled on his inheritance and married Elizabeth, daughter of a neighbour, the Hon. Thomas Coote of Bellamont, County Cavan. At Cabra (spelled ‘Cabaragh’ by Mrs Pendarves), the couple’s home was an old castle, built at the start of the 17th century by Gerald Fleming (who had in turn been granted territory previously held by a branch of the O’Reilly family). This was the building which was ‘modernized and made very pretty.’
Today the castle at Cabra is just one of a number of buildings constructed or improved by Mervyn Pratt. A walk through the site today leads first to his former stable block (see first set of pictures), popularly known as the Barracks. A long, two-storey gabled block the east side features a series of lunettes resting on a string-course; most of these have been blocked up but two are open as part of doorcases into the building. Nothing remains of the interior. To the west and on higher ground are the remains of the extended old castle, primarily consisting of two four-storey towers, that to the south likely the original Fleming residence. Again, almost nothing survives of the interior, but somehow in the newer block there remains intact one plastered niche, as well as evidence of an adjacent cantilevered staircase. From this high spot, the land begins to drop and, past a typical domed and recessed icehouse, the path leads down to a lake beside which stands what’s left of the ‘little commodious lodge’ where Mervyn Pratt lived while the castle was being restored and enlarged. It has been proposed by Kevin Mulligan that this building (as well as the stables) were designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and originally featured a broad pedimented façade inspired, via the work of Lord Burlington, by Palladio’s Villa Valmarana at Vigardolo. As elsewhere, not a lot remains and indeed at least half of the building no longer stands; the central portion has lost its pediment and, given a flat, utilitarian roof, is now used as a store shed. But at least here, enough does survive for the original concept to be apparent.
The Pratts remained in possession, but perhaps not in residence at Cabra for the rest of the 18th century; in his Statistical Survey of the County of Cavan (1802) Sir Charles Coote while enthusiastic about the improvements undertaken by Mervyn Pratt and his successors in the local town of Kingscourt, was much less engaged with the demesne and buildings at Cabra. ‘The ruins of the old castle,’ he wrote, ‘which was the family mansion, are contiguous to the house, but quite too near to have any pleasing effect, which such pieces of antiquity afford in the landscape.’ Sir Charles was far more enthusiastic about the landscape and house at nearby Cormy (‘very beautiful, and formed with great judgement and true economy’) owned by Henry Foster who was then undertaking to transform a standard Georgian house into a romantic Gothic castle. However, before this work was finished, Cormy was sold to Colonel Joseph Pratt who abandoned the old family old home and renamed the new one Cabra Castle. This remained in the ownership of his descendants until 1964 and has since been used as an hotel. Meanwhile the older Cabra estate fell into neglect until acquired by the national Forest and Wildlife Service in 1959. Today it is run by Coillte (the state forestry body) and open to the public as Dún a Rí forest park.