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.
A summer morning at Ballyfin, County Laois. When the house and demesne were restored some years ago, this cascade and pool were added by gardener Jim Reynolds on rising ground immediately behind the main building. In the foreground a river god reclines on a plinth while the vista is closed by a Doric temple designed for the site by architect John O’Connell.
‘1699. My father when he maryed (sic) my mother set up house-keeping at Stradbally and the year after he marryed he built the Big house that is the Hall, Big Staircase, and Big Parlour. My G-Fr. Pole gave him all the timber and 500 deal Boards to build it. He then planted a good many ditches and trees, made the south hedge of ye avenue, enclosed ye kitchen garden and the new orchard, and set the hedges round ‘em. He kept race horses which my G-Fr. Pole did not like and he gave him £100 on condition he wo’d never keep any more which he never strictly observed.
My eldest sister was born at Ballyfin, my sister Betty and I at Stradbally.
1703. My father’s circumstances were so bad that it was thought best he sho’d go into the Army and he therefore borrowed £300 from William Doxy of Rahinahole with which he purchased a Capts Commission in … Regiment. In 1704 he brook up the house and let Stradbally to Major Lyons and he was sent out of peque by the Late Duke of Ormond (now James Butler) (because he wo’d not vote for him in Parlmt) to Spain with recruits, and thereby also got one vote out of the way…’
1714. ‘[My father] left London and came over to Ireland to his new post and now by his long absence from his own home, and liveing in a manner as an exile in a parsimonious way, and by lands encreasing in value and leases falling and thereby his estate riteing, he was left in considerable circumstances, and so resolved to repair and refit his mansion House of Stradbally, in order to bring home his familly and spend his days at home, and so the latter end of 1714, he began to improve Stradbally, he made ye avenue that is, planted the trees, he built the Bridges going to it, added the Drawing-room to the big house next to the Big parlour, he winscoted the second floor entirely, floored the garret, built the Back stairs to the big house, built and finished the road to the Big house, made the big stairs, winscoted and floored the little Parlour and finished in a plain way the second floor of the little house, built a Brew house, walled the garden at the N:E: end of the house, also the Partarre, he laid out the new kitchen garden and planted it all with the choicest fruits, and planted the orchard at the N:W: side of the garden, he did all this and a good dail more in about 18 months time, and in April 1716 he came over to York to bring us over…’
From the time my Father came from England he lived very handsomely, more so than anyone in this county except my Uncle Pole, he kept his coach and chariot and six mares and four servants in Livery besides his Butler, and other outservants, as steward, gardner, etc., he kept a very plentifull house and table, his allowance was, 12 beefs a year, 40 muttons, 26 barrels of wheat for bread, 60 barrels of Mault, 2 hogsheads of wine, pork, veal, lambs, Wilde and tame fouls, and all other things in proportion. He continued in this method, and never encreased or decreased, when there was the least company, his table was never covered with less than 5 & 6 but very often with more, he used to have variety of white wines, the Poor never went away empty from his door, for both F: and M: were exceedingly charitable.
My father was ever doing some improvement or other, for Stradbally, when he came to it in 1716 was but a rough uncouth place.’
Extracts from the Autobiography of Pole Cosby (1703-1766) originally published in the Journal of the Co Kildare Archæological Society and Surrounding Districts, Vol V, 1906-1908.
Photographs show the stableyard at Stradbally, County Laois as designed for Robert Cosby by Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon in 1866-67.
A monastery is said to have been established by Saint Mochua in Timahoe, County Laois during the seventh century. Not much is known about the site, except that the church here was burnt twice, in 919 and again in 1142, before the religious house was re-founded by the dominant family of the area, the O’Mores. Following the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries, parts of the site were converted into a church, the remains of which can be seen on the left: to the right is a 19th century former church of Ireland premises, now in use as a heritage centre. The most interesting feature here is the mid-12th century round tower, exceptionally well-preserved and rising almost 96 feet. The Romanesque doorway, more elaborately carved than is often the case with round towers, is sixteen feet above the ground.
A scrolled pediment over the main entrance to Millbrook, County Laois carries the date 1885, the year this house was built as a residence for the agent of the de Vesci estate. Its architect was William Chambers (no relation of the 18th century architect of the same name), who just four years later would design Britain’s first purpose-built mosque in Woking, Surrey. Broken windows, lost slates and encroaching vegetation all indicate that Millbrook is now in an imperilled condition.
The former Church of Ireland church at Rathaspick, County Laois. There was an older structure on the site but the present one dates, as a stone over the entrance confirms, from 1813 when it was built with a grant of £553 from the Board of First Fruits. Unusually it is aligned on a north-south axis rather than the more liturgically correct east-west. The building remained in use for services until the 1950s when, like so many others, declining attendances caused its closure. A photograph of it taken some twenty years ago for the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage shows the unroofed church almost submerged in ivy but it has since been cleaned up, and the surrounding graveyard made more accessible.
The distinctive Grace mausoleum that dominates a graveyard to the immediate south of the Roman Catholic church in the village of Arles, County Laois. Descendants of a knight who came to Ireland with Strongbow in the 12th century, the Graces lived nearby in a house called Gracefield. Taking the form of a miniature Gothic chapel (it measures 21 feet in length and 16 feet in breadth, with the pinnacles rising 31 feet), the mausoleum was erected in 1818 on the instructions of Alicia Kavanagh (née Grace), widow of Morgan Kavanagh. It replaced an earlier tomb of her family on the same site and from that structure were salvaged a series of 18th century commemorative tablets: these are embedded around the exterior walls of the mausoleum. A carved panel over the door features the date of the building’s construction and the Grace coat of arms.