Avondale, County Wicklow is now irrevocably associated with its late-19th century owner, Charles Stewart Parnell – and anyone who visits the place cannot escape seeing his image across the house and grounds. Less well-known, however, and certainly not as well remembered, is the man who was responsible both for building the house and developing the estate that Parnell was eventually to inherit: Samuel Hayes. The latter was one of those extraordinary polymaths produced in the 18th century, acting among other roles as a lawyer, politician, amateur architect and antiquarian, and ardent dendrologist. In addition, during a relatively short life (he was only 52 when he died), Hayes served as sheriff and joint governor of County Wicklow, was a colonel in the Wicklow Foresters and subsequently lieutenant-colonel in the Wicklow militia in addition to being a governor of the Foundling Hospital and Workhouse and a commissioner of stamps. And, it is worth mentioning, he was a member of the Royal Irish Academy’s committee of antiquities and in 1792 became a member of the Dublin Society committee responsible for choosing a suitable spot on which to establish a Botanic Garden (eventually, the site in Glasnevin on the outskirts of Dublin was selected).
Samuel Hayes was born in 1743, the son of John Hayes who lived on a 4,500 acre estate in Wicklow called Hayesville: after inheriting the place following his father’s death, he changed the name to Avondale, since the river Avonmore runs through the grounds. As well as its associations with Parnell, Avondale is renowned for the outstanding collection of trees found throughout the grounds, the origin of which is due to Hayes. In 1768 he was awarded a gold medal by the (Royal) Dublin Society – of which he would be an active member over several decades, sitting on its committee of agriculture – for the planting of 2,550 beech trees on his estate. Thereafter, he continued to cultivate a wide variety of trees and in 1794, the year before his death, he published A practical treatise on planting and the management of woods and coppices. Based on a lifetime’s experience – Hayes noted that while he drew on the knowledge of other men, the work primarily reflected ‘my own experience, founded on considerable practice’ – this was the first-such work produced in Ireland . As its title indicates, the book was intended to be a practical guide for other landowners who wished to follow his example, and offered advice on how best to plant and manage trees, not least for the production of timber. It included seventeen engravings executed by Dublin artist William Esdall, although the originals may have been drawn by Hayes who, in addition to all his other skills, was a talented draughtsman. Even during his lifetime, the improvements carried out at Avondale had received widespread acknowledgement. Writing in The Post-Chaise Companion or Traveller’s Directory through Ireland (published 1786), William Wilson noted, that the estate ‘may justly claim the traveller’s attention, both from its fine natural situation, and the great pains and cxpense the owner has been at to dress and improve it to the perfection it has now attained. It is proudly situated on the banks of the Avonmore, which name, signifying “The great winding dream,” corresponds most happily with its character; the banks continually forming the finest waving lines, either covered with close coppice wood, or with scattered oak and ash of considerable growth ; the ground, in some places, smooth meadow or pasturc, and, in others, rising into romantic cliffs and craggy precipices. The domain of Avondale enjoys this diversity of scenery in the highest perfection.’
Hayes’s interest in architecture has already been mentioned. An amateur practitioner, he sat on the committee responsible for the extension of the Irish House of Commons, for which drawings were prepared in 1786 by James Gandon: Hayes wrote to the latter, declaring that ‘Except the windows, the building is finished exactly after my first sketch…a design as much as possible in the manner of Sir William Piers[sic] and Mr Burgh, a kinsman of mine and of the Speaker’s, who were both concerned in the façade to College-green, and for which reason among others, I wished to have the western front as much as possible in the same style.’ How much of the eventual design can be attributed to Hayes is open to speculation, but he was certainly responsible for the market house still seen in the centre of Monaghan town and commissioned in 1792 by General Robert Cuninghame, future first Lord Rossmore. Hayes is also thought to have had a hand in the house at Avondale, which dates from 1779 and for which he is believed to have commissioned designs from James Wyatt. Certainly, many elements of the house are in the Wyatt style, not least the insertion of Coade panels into what is otherwise a severe, rendered exterior, the rear of which is similarly relieved by a substantial full-length bow. Inside, the entrance hall, its decoration a whimsical mix of the classical and Gothick, is double-height, with a gallery on the first-floor providing light onto a bedroom passage. Many of the other reception rooms appear to have undergone later alteration but the dining room has elaborate neo-classical plasterwork in the Wyatt style. When Hayes died in 1795 he left no direct heir and therefore bequeathed the Avondale estate to a cousin, Sir John Parnell, with a stipulation that it should subsequently pass to a younger son. In due course Avondale was inherited by the youngest of Sir John’s children, William who changed his surname to Parnell-Hayes; in due course, one of his grandsons, Charles Stewart Parnell, came to own the estate. In 1904, some years after his death, Avondale was purchased by the state and became a forestry school. Today, the place is owned and managed by Coillte, the state-owned commercial forestry company, with the house open to the public.