The Rude dwelling of an Embarrassed Gentleman

‘In the year 1791, George Hartpole, of Shrewl Castle, Queen’s County, Ireland, had just come of age. He was the last surviving male of that name, which belonged to a popular family, highly respectable, and long established in the county. Few private gentlemen commenced life with better promise, and none better merited esteem and happiness. He was my relative by blood; and though considerably younger, the most intimate and dearest friend I had.
His father, Robert, had married a sister of the late and present Earls of Aldborough. She was the mother of George; and through this connexion originated my intercourse with that eccentric nobleman and his family.
A singular fatality had attended the Hartpole family from time immemorial. The fathers seldom survived the attainment of the age of 23 years by their elder sons, which circumstance gave rise to numerous traditionary tales of sprites and warnings.
Robert, as usual with the gentlemen of his day, was the dupe of agents, and the victim of indolence and hospitality. He had deposited his consort in the tomb of her fathers, and had continued merrily enjoying the convivialities of the world (principally in the night-time) till his son George had passed his 22nd year, and then punctually made way for the succession, leaving George inheritor of a large territory, a moderate income, a tattered mansion, an embarrassed rent-roll, and a profound ignorance (without the consciousness of it) of business in all departments.
George, though not at all handsome, had completely the mien and manners of a gentleman. His features accorded well with his address, bespeaking the cordiality of a friend and the ardour of an Irishman. His disposition was mild—his nature brave, generous, and sincere: on some occasions he was obstinate and peevish; on others, somewhat sullen and suspicious; but in his friendships, George Hartpole was immutable.
His stature was of the middle height, and his figure exhibited no appearance either of personal strength or constitutional vigour: his slender form and the languid fire of his eye indicated excitation without energy; yet his spirits were moderately good, and the most careless observer might feel convinced that he had sprung from no ordinary parentage—a circumstance which then had due influence in Ireland, where agents, artisans, and attorneys had not as yet supplanted the ancient nobility and gentry of the country.’

‘Shrewl Castle, the hereditary residence of the Hartpoles, was in no way distinguishable from the numerous other castellated edifices now in a state of dilapidation throughout the whole island—ruins which invariably excite a retrospect of happier times, when the resident landlord, reverenced and beloved, and the cheerful tenant, fostered and protected, felt the natural advantages of their reciprocal attachment; a reflection which leads us to a sad comparison with modern usages, when the absent lord and the mercenary agent have no consideration but the rents, no solicitude but for their collection; when the deserted tenantry keep pace in decline with the deserted mansion; when the ragged cottager has no master to employ, no guardian to protect him!—pining, and sunk in the lowest state of want and wretchedness,—sans work, sans food, sans covering, sans everything,—he rushes forlorn and desperate into the arms of destruction, which in all its various shapes stands ready to receive him. The reflection is miserable, but true:—such is Ireland since the year 1800.
Hartpole’s family residence, picturesquely seated on a verdant bank of the smooth and beautiful Barrow, had, during the revolutions of time, entirely lost the character of a fortress: patched and pieced after all the numberless orders of village architecture, it had long resigned the dignity of a castle without acquiring the comforts of a mansion: yet its gradual descent, from the stronghold of powerful chieftains to the rude dwelling of an embarrassed gentleman, could be traced even by a superficial observer. Its half-levelled battlements, its solitary and decrepit tower, and its rough, dingy walls, (giving it the appearance of a sort of habitable buttress,) combined to portray the downfall of an ancient family.’

‘George had received but a moderate education, far inadequate to his rank and expectations; and the country life of his careless father had afforded him too few conveniences for cultivating his capacity. His near alliance, however, and intercourse  with the Aldborough family, gave him considerable opportunities to counteract, in a better class of society, that tendency to rustic dissipation to which his situation had exposed him, and which, at first seductive, soon becomes habitual, and ruinous in every way to youthful morals…Hartpole’s fortune on the death of his father was not large; but its increase would be great and certain, and this rendered his adoption of any money-making profession or employment unnecessary. He accordingly purchased a commission in the army, and commenced his entré into a military life and general society with all the advantages of birth, property, manners, and character.
A cursory observation of the world must convince us of one painful and inexplicable truth;—that there are some men (and frequently the best) who, even from their earliest youth, appear born to be the victims of undeviating misfortune; whom Providence seems to have gifted with free-agency only to lead them to unhappiness and ruin. Ever disappointed in his most ardent hopes—frustrated in his dearest objects—his best intentions overthrown—his purest motives calumniated and abused,—no rank or station suffices to shelter such an unfortunate:—ennui creeps upon his hopeless mind, communicates a listless languor to a sinking constitution, and at length he almost joyfully surrenders an existence which he finds too burdensome to be supported.
Such nearly was the lot of the last of the Hartpoles. He had scarcely commenced a flattering entrance into public life, when one false and fatal step, to which he was led first by a dreadful accident, and subsequently by his own benevolent disposition, worked on by the chicanery of others, laid the foundation of all his future miseries.
While quartered with his regiment at Galway, in Ireland, his gun, on a shooting party, burst in his hand, which was so shattered, that it was long before his surgeon could decide that amputation might be dispensed with.’

Today’s text is taken from Personal Sketches of His Own Times by Sir Jonah Barrington (1830), and the pictures show Shrule Castle, County Laois, ancestral home of Sir Jonah’s friend George Hartpole. Alas, following his shooting accident in Galway, Hartpole’s circumstances deteriorated rapidly; he managed to contract two marriages, the first with the daughter of a local innkeeper and then with the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, both of which soon ended unhappily, as did his own life since after just a few years, his health declined and he died, still a young man. Shrule Castle subsequently passed to the Lecky family and either they, or Hartpole added a large house to one side of the old castle. This, however, was badly damaged by fire in 1940 and its remains then demolished. Some years ago, the current owners embarked on an ambitious restoration of the old building but following an intervention by the local authority the work came to a halt, leaving the castle as it can be seen today. 

10 comments on “The Rude dwelling of an Embarrassed Gentleman

  1. Patrick says:

    I’m so glad the local planning authority got involved here , it’s obviously far better to have a remote derelict ruin than a living castle not on strict compliance with regulations.

  2. sylvia wright says:

    What were the objections of the local planning authority?

  3. Elizabeth Printy says:

    Thank you for including the exquisite and detailed writing of Sir Jonah Barrington. He sets for many today the skill and art of prosaic style. At least his contribution has lasted, while the estate is now wasted.

  4. Laura McKenna says:

    Thank you! I really enjoyed Barrington’s account though it’s a surprise anything is left of the castle given his depressing details of its decline some 200 years ago.

  5. Michael and Agnes Keane says:

    Just to inform that the name Hartpole continues to arouse strong emotions in Laois to the present time. An article in the Leinster Express on 14th October this year advocates a replacement memorial in Portarlington for that of the ‘infamous English soldier’ Robert Hartpole whose Portarlington statue was firstly beheaded and, as decided by Laois County Council, is being removed to Carlow museum. The article refers in particular to Robert Hartpole’s role in the slaughter of the Laois Septs at Mullaghmast. Incidentally I had discussed Mullaghmast and its aftermath, involving the transplantation of many of the surviving Laois septs to Kerry, in my 2016 book ‘From Laois to Kerry’.

    • Matthias carolan says:

      Where could I get a copy of your book

      • Michael Keane says:

        Matthias, From Laois to Kerry is available in a number of local bookshops including Alan Hannas Rathmines, Dublin, Bookmark, Portlaoise, Omahonys Limerick and Polymath in Tralee, also online at,, or Amazon or indeed myself. While this book was launched in 2016 I have just launched a new companion book which discusses the family story of the Crosbies who transplanted many of the Laois septs to Kerry and became their landlords there. The title is The Crosbies of Cork, Kerry, Laois and Leinster: Bards, Imposters, Landlords, Politicians, Aeronauts, Newspapers. Its available from the same outlets

  6. Matthias Carolan says:

    Thank you Michael for the info

  7. Stephen Barker says:

    A pity that work on the building has stopped. Had the owners failed to consult with the planners before they had started work. I found Barrington’s account rather flowery. I was wondering just which period of history he was describing when landlord and tenant lived in harmony and respect for each other.

    • Michael and Agnes Keane says:

      As previously posted the name Hartpole continues to arouse strong feelings in Laois to the present time, Another recent article: LaoisToday 15th October 2021

      The effigy of Robert Hartpole, which was erected in the People’s Park in Portarlington, was removed this week and relocated to Carlow Museum where it will be put on display. The decision was taken by Laois County Council because of Hartpole’s close links with Carlow and because he had little or no connections with Portarlington. It will be properly protected and preserved in Carlow as some significant aesthetic and material damage was caused to the stone in the People’s Park.
      Sinn Fein Councillor Aidan Mullins explained the historical significance of the Robert Hartpole statue. He said: “Hartpole was an English soldier, posted to Carlow c1549 to defend planter families from Gaelic tribes. He led a campaign of land acquisition from the Gaelic Irish and had a reputation for cruelty. In 1570 he was granted Carlow Castle and made Constable and also owned Coolbanagher Castle. Hartpole was involved in the massacre of the leaders of the Clans of Laois at Mullaghmast. (see M C Keane, ‘From Laois to Kerry’ 2016 for an account of the Mullaghmast slaughter and its consequences). He was made High Sheriff of Queen’s County and Carlow. He died in 1594 and was buried at St. Mary’s Church in Carlow with an elaborate tomb and a carved stone effigy, a life size sculpture of Hartpole. The Church was replaced in 1635 and the tomb was lost. When it was rediscovered in 1809 local anger at memories of Mullaghmast led to the effigy being damaged and the head cut off. It was removed to Kilnacourt in Portarlington for safe keeping but parts of the tomb remain in Carlow.”
      Cllr Mullins agrees with the decision to move the effigy and has called on Laois County Councillor to replace it with a piece of sculpture. He said: “Considering the history of Hartpole and his effigy, I think it is correct and fitting that it was taken back to Carlow Museum. I would also like to see it being replaced with some other more relevant sculpture and I will be raising this with Laois County Council for consideration as part of the planned People’s Park upgrade.”

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