The town of Portarlington, which straddles the border between Counties Laois and Offaly, dates from the mid-1660s when founded by Henry Bennet. An ardent supporter of Charles II, he was rewarded by the king with large grants of land in this part of Ireland, and sought to make the most of this gift by establishing a new settlement. Since he had been created Baron Arlington in 1665 (and made Earl of Arlington the following decade), he decided to call the town Port-Arlington, hence its name. The original English colony was not a success but at the start of the 1690s, a number of Huguenot families, religious refugees from France, came to Portarlingon and thereafter the town flourished. Dating from 1697, Arlington House, on French Church Street, was one of the first buildings to be erected by a Huguenot settler, Daniel Le Grand Chevalier Seigneur du Petit Bosc who lived here until his death in 1737. He was responsible for the rear section of the house, to which a new front with pedimented façade and first-floor Diocletian window was added in the mid-18th century. It later became a boarding school, one of the pupils who attended there being Edward Carson. In more recent years, despite its history and importance to the town, Arlington House has stood empty and allowed to fall into the present state of near-total ruin. It is, naturally, listed by the local authority for protection.
Buried in woodland managed by Coillte, the national forestry commission, this gazebo was once part of the parkland of Emo Court, County Laois. As James Howley noted in his book on The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland (1993), the structure bears similarities to the William Kent-designed Worcester Lodge on the Badminton estate in England. It dates from 1746, whereas the Emo Court gazebo is slightly later, believed to be c.1760. The rusticated base takes the form of a triumphal arch, with extensions on either side, one of which would have held a service room and the other a staircase. The latter provided access to the octagonal first floor, its cut-limestone exterior featuring alternating windows and arched niches with oculi above them all. Here presumably meals were taken on occasion and views across the demesne appreciated. The dome crowning the building has long since been lost, and some of the stonework looks in perilous condition.
Set into the estate walls of Castle Durrow, County Laois, the little church of St Fintan’s dates from the late 18th century when built either by, or with the support of, William Flower, third Viscount Ashbrook. Internally the building is plain, but distinguished by the presence of this organ which was originally installed in the chapel at Trinity College Dublin in 1797. The manufacturer was Samuel Green, ‘Organ builder to their Majesties Isleworth Middx 1797’, the instrument commissioned at a cost of five hundred guineas by George III who then donated it to the college. Forty years later William Telford made a new organ for Trinity College, this one being brought to Durrow in 1842 and placed inside St Fintan’s by the fourth Lord Ashbrook: he had to add a transept to the south side of the building to accommodate the instrument. Today the only Green organ in Ireland, it sits inside a case which looks to date from the installation in Durrow: pipes at either end rest on piers that feature angels carrying the Flower family crest.
The history of Coolrain, County Laois is something of a mystery. The main block looks to be early-to-mid 18th century, of two storeys over raised basement and five bays with a central breakfront. The latter features a fine cut-limestone Gibbsian doorcase approached by a short flight of steps and flanked by sidelights, with a Venetian window directly above on the first floor. On either side of the main block, and seeming to be slightly later in date, are fine carriage arches, that to the right (south-east) further extending to a small stable yard. But the carriage arches are just that and no more: there is nothing behind them and the entrances are blocked up (if indeed they were ever open). It would appear their main, perhaps only, function was to extend the house façade and thereby give an impression of greater grandeur to anyone arriving there. Who designed and/or built Coolrain (and when) is unknown, but all indications are that the original owner was a member of the landed gentry with aspirations to climb the social ladder.
At some date after its construction, Coolrain was enlarged by an extension to the rear but only on the left (north-west) side. The gable ends of the older section of the building indicate it was originally just one room deep, with the central portion extended back to accommodate a staircase hall lit by another Venetian window on the return. This window was subsequently blocked up, although one wonders why this was necessary since the extension does not intrude on its space. Aforementioned extension had a kitchen in the basement and a dining room immediately above, and looks to have been added towards the end of the 18th century. The gardens behind presumably ran down to the river Tonet not far away, but to the west of the house and yard are the remains of a little rectangular folly, presumably a tea room (since it has a small basement where the servants could prepare refreshments) from which there would have been a charming view of Coolrain.
In his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Samuel Lewis lists Coolrain (then spelt ‘Cooleraine’) as being occupied by one T. Palmer. There were a number of Palmers living in Laois at the time, not least at Cuffsborough some eight miles to the south where the house has a similar doorcase (albeit set into a grander façade). Lewis notes that there were extensive flour and oatmeal mills in the adjacent village of Coolrain, so it may be that the occupants of the big house were involved in such a commercial enterprise. Later it was the residence of the Campion family who farmed the surrounding land until the death in 1921 of the last member to live there. Coolrain seems to have fallen into ruin subsequently, being too big and too hard to maintain for the average farmer. More recently some work was initiated on the outbuildings, but this appears to have been abandoned, and the house now stands in the middle of a field, the mystery of its origins and early history becoming ever-harder to discern.
One of James Gandon’s designs for the façade of Emo Court, County Laois. In the 1780s the architect was employed by enlightened patron John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington to come up with plans for a new house on his country estate. This is one of Gandon’s proposals, and interesting to compare with Emo Court as eventually built. The process was devilled with setbacks, beginning with the Lord Portarlington’s unexpected death in 1798, by which time only the shell of the house had been constructed. It took more than sixty years, and the involvement of a number of other architects, before work on the building was finally completed. As a result and reflecting changes in taste, various alterations, external and internal, were made to the original scheme. Many of Gandon’s original drawings, plus those of his successors, are currently on display in the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin. Below is one of the Gandon proposals for the garden front, and a photograph of the same prospect today.
The gardens of Heywood, County Laois have been mentioned here more than once (see To Smooth the Lawn, To Decorate the Dale, May 12th 2014 and Happily Disposed in the Most Elegant Taste, August 27th 2018). Close by in the village of Ballinakill stands an early 19th century church associated with the families who lived at Heywood. All Saints was built in 1821 – most likely on the site of an earlier building – for the sum of £1,558, thanks to assistance from the Board of First Fruits. When Samuel Lewis visted Ballinakill in 1837 he wrote ‘The parish church, situated in the town, is a handsome edifice with a tower and spire; the east window, which is of stained glass and very handsome, was purchased on the Continent and presented by the late Francis Trench, Esq.’ More likely it was Michael Frederick Trench of Heywood who had acquired the glass, of which more below. He was succeeded by his son Major-General Sir Frederick William Trench who died in 1859. Having no direct male heir, the estate then passed to his nephew, Sir Charles Domville (eldest surviving son of the wonderfully named Sir Compton Pocklington Domville, who had married Trench’s sister Helena). In turn Sir Charles’ niece Mary Adelaide Domville would marry Lt.-Col. Sir William Hutchison-Poë, who at the start of the last century commissioned Lutyens to design the gardens at Heywood.
Much of the interior of All Saints, Ballinakill dates from the second half of the 19th century when the church was enlarged and redecorated by the Domvilles. According to the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette of March 1868, the building was then restored and beautified ‘chiefly through the bounty of W. Domville Esq., of Ballinakill’ with the installation of new pews, pulpit and reading desk, as well as the gift of an organ, carved stone font, ‘velvet uphostery, pew furniture, coronas & bracket lights.’ It appears that the chancel was added to the existing structure at this time. One of the notable features of the interior is that the walls retain their original stenciled decoration, beginning in the oval entrance lobby where the domed ceiling represents the celestial sky covered in gold stars. In the main body of the church the walls are likewise stenciled or painted with improving texts, each panel of the ceiling carrying the symbol of a different saint. Damp has caused some damage to the work but, thanks to a generous grant from the Heritage Council some years ago, the condition of the church has been stabilized and no further flaking of paint seems likely.
Samuel Lewis mentioned that the church’s east window contained glass ‘purchased on the continent’. When the Domvilles added a chancel, this glass was divided between new windows on the extension’s north and south sides. The windows are of interest since they feature examples of Netherlandish glass dating from between the late 15th and late 17th century. In an article published The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , Vol. 121 (1991), William Cole examines these pieces (and those in another three Irish churches) and explains how they came to be in this country. As he notes, at least in part due to the French Revolution, ‘there was a general air of unrest in northern Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. Churches were in a bad state financially and the sale of church furnishings and glass helped to remedy this state of affairs.’ Many such items were bought by wealthy landowners in Britain and Ireland to decorate churches on or adjacent to their estates, and this would appear to have been the case at Ballinakill. Originally made in profusion for chapels, cloisters and corridors and customarily in a round or oval shape, the glass was easily transported and helped give an air of antiquity to Irish churches rebuilt or renovated thanks to the support of the Board of First Fruits. In this instance, additional glass was provided in the 1880s by the firm of Cox, Sons, Buckley and Co, which having been established in London, around this time opened a branch in Youghal, County Cork to cater for demand here. Since that time, almost nothing has changed inside the church, which – lacking electric lighting – still sees candles used during services. All Saints is a rare surviving example of a High Victorian religious interior and for that reason particularly precious.
Looking positively Italianate in the early autumn sunshine, the west end of the garden front at Abbeyleix, County Laois. A series of terraces descend to a final series of circular stone steps, an architectural device highly reminiscent of similar work designed in 1906 by Edwin Lutyens for Heywood barely five miles away: might he have had a hand in this too? A sunken area immediately below contains what was once a swimming pool but more recently has been converted into a lily pond, at one end containing a bronze statue of a nude on horseback made by Irish sculptor Olivia Musgrave.
Heywood, County Laois has featured here before (See To Smooth the Lawn, To Decorate the Dale, May 12th 2014), the focus on that occasion being primarily the terraced gardens designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1906. However, both Lutyens and his client, Colonel William Hutcheson Poë, did not start with a virgin site. On the contrary, they were working within a landscape that had been carefully laid out more than a century earlier. The main outlines of the estate here were created by Michael Frederick Trench, son of the Rev. Frederick Trench. Of French extraction, the first of the family arrived in Ireland in 1631 and purchased the land and castle of Garbally, on the outskirts of Ballinasloe, County Galway: ultimately this line would become Earls of Clancarty. In the early 18th century, a younger son William Trench settled in Laois and acquired land there which was initially developed by his heir, the Rev. Frederick. The English antiquary Owen Brereton wrote of the property in 1763, describing it as ‘a sweet Habitation’ with ’24 Acres Walld round 10 feet high. The ground naturally in fine Slopes and Rising, large trees properly disperst, a River of very clear Water running through it. Pouring Cascades, upon which I counted near 100 Couple of rabbits & 100 of Brace of Hares which are in this Grounds…very extensive Views.’ Both the habitation and the grounds were enlarged by the Rev. Trench’s son Michael Frederick Trench who in 1773 built a new house which he named Heywood after his mother-in-law’s maiden name. A wealthy barrister and amateur architect, Trench is believed to have been primarily responsible for the building’s design although James Gandon may also have had a hand in the work. In 1771 a drawing was shown at the Society of Artists exhibition of the ‘Front of Mr Trench’s house in Ireland…from a design of Mr Gandon’s.’ On the other hand, Sir Charles Coote’s Statistical Survey of the Queen’s County (1801) states that the house was built after Trench’s own plan. A view of the building’s façade (c.1789 and attributed to James Malton) shows it to have been a neo-classical villa: this was engulfed by a much larger house in the late 19th century and the whole was destroyed by fire in 1950. We will probably never know.
If Michael Frederick Trench took an active part in the design of his country residence, the same is likely to have been true of landscaping the demesne which then followed. Heywood sits on high ground about a mile from the village of Ballinakill lying to the south-west. Trench laid out the grounds so that they could be enjoyed both from the windows of the house and during a drive or leisurely walk from the building down to Ballinakill. Large earthworks had to be undertaken in order to create a suitable landscape: today the Lutyens terraces (which sit directly below where formerly stood the house) rest behind large buttressed stone walls. When Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a year after Michael Frederick Trench’s death, he was able to call Heywood a ‘richly varied demesne ornamented with plantations and artificial sheets of water.’ In contrast to the classical severity of the building, the grounds were deeply romantic, and resolutely looking to the past. Setting the tone, the main entrance featured gates set between a pair of Gothic polygonal towers, their rooflines generously castellated. From here the drive winds to the first folly, a slim hexagonal gothic column of limestone column which serves both to commemorate Trench’s close friendship with his distant cousin and fellow-patron of the arts Andrew Caldwell, and also to mark the distance to various locations including Ballinakill and – somewhat further away – Dublin. The column is also close to the point where the first of three lakes rises: these follow close to the line of the drive, with a number of (now over-grown) rustic bridges allowing views down to the village. Moving close to the latter and in contrast to the gothic column one reaches a plain classical gazebo called Claude’s Seat, its name perhaps derived from Claude Lorrain whose pastoral scenes are evoked by the view across a lily-strewn lake. Directly behind the building is a small chamber with the remains of plaster stalagmites on its coved ceiling: this may have served as a hermitage.
Moving back towards the house, on a bluff above the drive and facing each other are two more substantial Gothic follies created by Michael Frederick Trench. One of these is a small sham castle with circular corner towers and castellated parapets. A triple lancet-arch window lights the modest interior, with a corresponding arched opening beneath. Directly opposite is can be seen what are intended to look like the ruins of a mediaeval church; the fine traceried window is said to be 15th century and to have been brought from the former Dominican friary at Aghaboe, some twelve miles away. Above both was another, more finished structure, a Gothic orangery built of red brick with limestone hood mouldings and obelisk pinnacles along the roofline. Today this is just a shell but other buildings that once could be seen in the Heywood demesne have gone altogether: for example, on a hillock to the south of the house stood an Ionic Temple of the Winds. For many years, this landscape and its diverse follies was neglected and allowed to fall into ruin, but of late much work has been done to clear back the vegetation and allow Trench’s original scheme be understood. As Sir Charles Coote wrote in 1801, ‘The demesne of Heywood deserves particular attention; except in the irregularity of ground, this charming spot had few natural advantages to recommend it to even the most experienced and judicious taste, which Mr Trench the proprietor must be acknowledged most eminently to possess. Nature has been so truly copied by him, that in none of the numerous elegant improvements is seen anything of artificial appearance. In each of the approaches the most delightful scenes are presented to the eye, and the senses of some voluptuaries would indeed be ravished with views of such exquisite beauty. The water, which appears from so many vistas, is all artificial and covered with wild fowl in the season. Several architectural ornaments of true classic merit are happily disposed in the most elegant taste; the ruin has all the appearance of gothic antiquity, and its view from several partial spots of the demesne has the best possible effect.’
An unrestored section of the former union workhouse at Donaghmore, County Laois. As with the majority of such buildings erected across the country from 1839 onwards, this one was designed by George Wilkinson, although the earlier neo-Tudor style he employed had long since been abandoned by the time work started here. Completed in September 1853, the project cost £4,750 with a further £775 spent on fittings. By the time it opened, the Great Famine had ended and thereafter workhouses gradually fell out of use: this one closed in 1886. For much of the last century the premises were used by local farmers for the Donaghmore Co-Operative Society. More recently a front portion of the site has been converted into a museum.
Anyone driving south-east from Durrow, County Laois on the N77 cannot fail to notice a striking ruin on a rise just outside the town. This is Knockatrina, yet another Irish house with unclear origins. The land here was owned by the Flower family, created Viscounts Ashbrook in 1751, whose main residence was nearby at Castle Durrow. The fifth Lord Ashbrook had three sons, the youngest of whom, Lt-Colonel Robert Flower is known to have been living in Knockatrina by the late 1860s following his marriage to Gertrude Hamilton: with no expectations of inheriting the main property, this would have been as much as he could expect to receive. And as the youngest of the family, he had to earn his living which he proved admirably capable of doing since he had a strong interest in engineering. He was responsible for a number of inventions, including a handloom for the unskilled and a latch-hook needle for faster weaving: these devices would be put to use by his neighbour the fifth Viscount de Vesci who in 1904 opened a carpet factory in Abbeyleix. Two years later Robert Flower became eighth Viscount Ashbrook, neither of his elder brothers having had male heirs (in 1877 the sixth Lord Ashbrook had divorced his wife Emily on the grounds of adultery with a Captain Hugh Sydney Baillie). As a result he came into possession of Castle Durrow but by that time the family finances were in poor condition and three years after his death in 1919 the ninth viscount was obliged to sell Castle Durrow.
Knockatrina was inherited by the eighth Lord Ashbrook’s eldest daughter the Hon Frances Mary Flower who in 1893 married Henry White, the younger son of a neighbour. As early as 1908 she and her husband were in trouble for failure to pay debts yet somehow they managed to hang on. Following her husband’s death in 1923, Frances White continued to farm and train horses, despite being declared bankrupt in 1928. It was only in 1946 that she finally moved out of Knockatrina and into a nursing home in Kilkenny where she died the following year aged eighty.
Knockatrina meanwhile had been bought by Mary Mooney who acted as housekeeper and companion to another local woman, Amy Mercier (Mary Mooney would be the beneficiary of the latter’s will). It seems Ms Mooney acquired Knockatrina as an investment rather than a residence since in 1958 her agent, a farmer in the vicinity, arranged to have the house stripped of all removable fittings and unroofed (this was the period when any such building with a roof was liable to domestic rates, hence many of them had the slates removed). Left a shell, Knockatrina quickly deteriorated and the land on which the remains stand was subsequently sold.
As is so often the case, no records appear to exist offering information about when Knockatrina was built or who might have been its architect. It has been proposed that Robert Flower was responsible for the house’s construction but this seems unlikely, not least because by the time he moved there the family was already burdened by debt. More importantly, on the basis of design it looks to belong to the group of medium-sized country houses including Rathwade, Wykeham and Mount Leinster Lodge. There were all in nearby County Carlow and built during the 1830s to the designs of the prolific (and – like the Flowers – permanently indebted) Daniel Robertson in a loosely Tudor Gothic style. If Knockatrina belongs to the same group, and indeed was designed or inspired by the same architect, this means it would have been erected during the lifetime of the fourth Viscount Ashbrook, whose first wife Deborah Friend was a considerable heiress. Given its proximity to Castle Durrow, Knockatrina would then have served as either a dower house or an agent’s residence. However neither would have been required by the late 1860s, so handing it on to a younger son made sense. Inevitably given that the house has been unroofed for almost sixty years almost nothing of the interior survives (other than some tiles on the entrance hall floor). Fortunately, as can be seen in the photographs above, the present owner does not wish for the building to fall into further disrepair. On the contrary, he is keen to undertake a programme of restoration over the coming years and return Knockatrina to residential use. All being well it won’t be long before the view from the N77 offers passers-by not a ruin but once again a fully functioning house.