The Coote family has been mentioned here on several occasions. The first of them to settle in Ireland was Charles Coote, an ambitious soldier who arrived here around 1600 and gradually acquired estates, predominantly in the midlands, before being killed at Trim, County Meath in June 1642 during the Confederate Wars. One of his sons, Chidley Coote, born in 1608, participated in the same wars, rising to the rank of colonel. Unlike his father, he survived those turbulent times and in 1666 was granted some 3,000 acres near Kilmallock, County Limerick by Charles II. There he occupied a property called Castle Coote, which was eventually demolished in the mid-18th century, presumably around the time a new house – called Ash Hill – was built. His heir, another Chidley Coote, rather than the army, chose to become a Church of Ireland clergyman instead, although one of his sons, General Sir Eyre Coote served as a soldier in India for many years. The same was true of one of his nephews, another General Sir Eyre Coote, although the latter’s career ended in disgrace in 1816 after it was discovered that the previous November, he had visited Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex and offered some boys there money if they allowed him to flog them. He then asked them to flog him in turn before providing payment. When this was discovered, General Coote was charged with indecent conduct, although acquitted after making a donation of £1,000 to the school. However, a subsequent investigation by a number of his fellow generals, concluded that Coote was eccentric rather than mad. Nevertheless, his behaviour was deemed unworthy of an officer and a gentleman, and in consequence, he was removed from his regiment and dismissed from the army. Coote’s eccentricity, it was claimed, arose from the effects of the climate on his brain while he served as Governor of Jamaica between 1805 and 1808. Incidentally, it has been claimed that while living on the island, he had an affair with a slave, and that the direct descendant of that relationship was another distinguished soldier and politician, the late General Colin Powell.
To return to the Cootes of Kilmallock, the last of them to live on the Kilmallock estate was yet another Chidley Coote. Curiously, following his death in 1799, the property passed not to one of his sons (he had four by his second marriage) but instead to a cousin, Eyre Evans, whose great-aunt Jane Evans had been Coote’s grandmother: the Evans family was based at Miltown Castle, County Cork. In the early 1830s, Eyre Evans was responsible for transforming the garden front of the house at Ash Hill, of which more below. However, in 1858, in the aftermath of the Great Famine when much land changed hands, part of the estate was sold to one Thomas Weldon. More of the estate was sold by the Evans family in 1880 to Thomas Weldon’s son, John Henry. Following the latter’s death in 1907, the house came to be occupied by his wife’s nephew, Captain Paul Lindsay: in 1946 he sold it to the present owner’s family.
As seen today, Ash Hill reflects the tastes of its different owners, beginning with the Coote family. Seen through imposing limestone gate posts, the entrance front looks onto a wide forecourt, flanked by long, two-storey stable blocks that date from around the second quarter of the 18th century, making them earlier than the main house, believed to date from 1781. Its eleven-bay facade is centred on a single-bay pediment holding a doorcase with wide fanlight and sidelights below a Venetian window. Further along the building are two further doorcases with fanlight and sidelights, although one of these has since been turned into a window. As already mentioned, some 50 years later, further alterations and additions were made to the garden front of the building and they were quite startling. As Samuel Lewis explained in 1837, ‘a large castellated mansion now in progress of erection in the ancient baronial style, consisting of a centre flanked by lofty circular towers and two extensive wings, of which one on the west is connected with a noble gateway leading to the offices, which occupy the sides of a quadrangular area; the whole is of hewn limestone…’ The architect responsible for this work is thought to have been Charles Anderson who had an extensive practice in this part of the country until 1849 when he emigrated to the United States and there enjoyed a successful career until his death 20 years later. As a result of these changes, the house’s name was changed to Ash Hill Towers.
A number of descriptions of Ash Hill in the first decades of the last century survive, giving the impression there was insufficient money to maintain the place. Writing in 1908, Eileen Weldon observed that while the house was big and impressive, it was also rather bare, and that the food on offer was meagre: ‘All we were offered for supper was six slices of toast for five of us and some cold bread. There was tea and butter, but not a sign of anything else. Father had smuggled in a cake from downtown and hidden it in the sideboard so we didn’t fare so badly.’ As for the interiors, ‘The ceilings and fireplaces are beautiful, but oh so dirty. I long to get to work with soap and water, a broom, etc.’ During the early 1920s, the house suffered badly, being occupied by different groups of soldiers on three occasions, none of them treating the place well. Another Weldon family member who called into Ash Hill in 1932 remembered ‘It was unoccupied and badly in need of repair. It was all furnished – about 30 rooms (not one bathroom) but the hand carved marble fireplaces were all bashed and broken – the ancestral pictures had been used for target practice…the lovely books of the library strewn underfoot.’ Seemingly Captain Lindsay offered Ash Hill ‘as a convent or monastery but there were no takers because of its condition.’ Finally, as noted, it was sold in 1946. Subsequently, some of Anderson’s more fanciful decorative flourishes were removed from the garden front, not least the two tall castellated towers and a chapel extension to one side. Internally, other changes had to be made, including the construction of a new main staircase, large parts of its predecessor having been destroyed. What does survive is a series of wonderful ceilings, the majority of them on the first floor which evidently once held the main reception rooms. Two of them look as though they might have been designed by James Wyatt/Thomas Penrose. However, it does not appear man either produced these specific designs. Similarly, the execution is of an exceptionally high standard – those oval medallions holding classical figures – but the stuccodore responsible is unknown. The nearest comparison is the ceiling in the entrance hall at Glin Castle, elsewhere in County Limerick, which dates from the same period. The Ash Hill work has blessedly undergone restoration work in recent years to ensure future survival. Meanwhile, in striking contrast to these neo-classical designs, an adjacent room overlooking the garden holds a really splendid Perpendicular Gothic ceiling, smothered in ribs of fan vaulting. It is this confident mixing of styles within the same building, so typical of the late 18th/early 19th centuries, so anathema to purists, that makes Ash Hill and its history so fascinating to explore.