The Fox family of County Longford were of ancient origin, their name being Ó Sionnaigh before it was anglicized. In the 11th century Tadhg O Catharnaigh (Kearney) was Chief of Teffia in Co. Meath and as a result of his wiliness came to be known as ‘An Sionnach’ – The Fox. His descendants kept the title, and eventually gained control of the Barony of Kilcoursey, County Offaly, the head of the family continuing to be known as The Fox. Among these descendants was one Patrick Fox, who appears to have been based in Dublin in the late 16th century when he worked closely with English government forces and as a result managed to secure lands in what is now County Longford which had hitherto belonged to the O’Farrells. On his death in 1618 he passed the estate to his eldest son Nathaniel, then aged 30, who built a house there, seemingly incorporating parts of the old O’Farrell castle of Rathreagh. This residence was called Foxhall.
Close to the house at Foxhall, Sir Nathaniel Fox erected a small church, now roofless and in poor condition, the south wall of which is dominated by his tomb (he died in 1634). This wonderful monument takes the form of a limestone altar tomb on which can be seen the reclining figure of Sir Nathaniel, garbed as a knight in full armour lying on his side: the head, right hand and left leg of the effigy are long gone, so that just the truncated torso and thigh remain. An orb and skull can be seen at his feet while what remains of his right arm rests on a tasselled cushion. On either side of the effigy are paired Ionic pilasters supporting an arch on which rest sphinxes. Winged putti can be seen within the arch above which is an entablature with obelisks and elaborate scrollwork. A panel above Sir Nathaniel contains the Fox coat of arms, and below two shields is a Latin inscription which translates as follows: ‘Here lies Nathaniel Fox, of Rathreagh, founder of this church, eldest son and heir of Patrick Fox of Moyvore in Co. Westmeath, who had as wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Walter Hussey of Moyhussey Knight. By whom he had 8 sons and 5 daughters, of whom 8 sons and 3 daughters survived. Patrick, son of the aforesaid Nath., sole heir, had as wife, Barbara, daughter of Lord Patrick Plunkett, Baron of Dunsany. The same Nath. and Elizabeth, lived for 25 years as man and wife, and he died at Rathreagh,2nd of Feb. A.D. 1634, aged 46.’ The entrance to the church at the west end is through a fine cut-limestone classical doorcase with a plaque noting that the building was enlarged and restored in 1772. Presumably this work was undertaken by Francis Fox of Foxhall who in 1759 married Mary Edgeworth of Edgeworthstown, linking the two families. This connection was further strengthened in 1824 when their grandson, Major Barry Fox married Mary Edgeworth’s great-niece Sophia, half-sister of writer Maris Edgeworth.
Writing of Foxhall in July 1797, Maria Edgeworth noted that ‘The house is partly an old castle, and the place quite out of order, run to ruin during [Mr Fox’s] two year absence with his regiment of Militia, besides it rained the whole time we were there and the prospect is bounded by black bogs.’ The Mr Fox to whom she here refers was the aforementioned Francis Fox, Colonel of the Longford Militia. One must presume that the condition of the house improved as three years later Maria Edgeworth again wrote to one of her siblings, ‘We – that is my father, Mrs E, Charlotte and Maria are just returned from Foxhall where we have been dining and making merry with excellent raisin wine and walking and seeing the monument and statue recumbent of that valiant knight Sir Nat Fox who has a one foot upon a globe and the other upon a skull.’ Her host Francis Fox had in 1787 married Lady Anne Maxwell, daughter of the first Earl of Farnham. This may be of relevance when one looks at the photograph of Foxhall (the last below), as there are strong similarities between the house and Farnham, the latter remodelled and enlarged from 1802 onwards for the second Lord Farnham (Lady Anne’s brother) to the designs of Francis Johnston (this is even allowing for major alterations made to Farnham in 1961). Both buildings are were of three-storeys and with a three-bay breakfront, the respective owner’s coat of arms being featured in the pediment above. Farnham was certainly larger, suggesting that Francis Fox having found his house, in Maria Edgeworth’s words, ‘run to ruin’ decided to undertake a major refurbishment and to emulate his brother-in-law’s residence. We shall likely never know because the house no longer stands. The last of the male Foxes to live here, Richard Maxwell Fox, died in 1885 and having no living sons the estate was inherited by his eldest daughter Adeline. It would appear neither she nor her two sisters married, and that they preferred to live in England. The greater part of the Fox land having already been sold, the house and demesne went the same way in the 1920s, and the former was eventually demolished by the Land Commission in 1946. The yard buildings, which stood directly behind the house, still survive to give some idea of what the place must once have been like.
Please note: In Ireland, as in so much of the world, a great many buildings are closed to the public at present. On the other hand, locations that are in decay or ruin, and open to the elements are often accessible. As a result, this site is likely to feature many such properties over the coming weeks. The Irish Aesthete apologises, but promises to keep the tone as upbeat and cheerful as possible.