Fortgranite, County Wicklow was discussed here a month ago (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2019/04/15/fortgranite). The estate’s best-known gatelodge takes the form of a rusticated toy castle, but this one greets visitors at the start of another drive. Of local granite, of course, and dating from c.1840, it is unusual in presenting identical facades both front and rear: on both sides, there is a canted breakfront at the centre of the building featuring a doorcase. Other than for reasons of symmetry, one wonders why the necessity for two entrances in such a small lodge?
Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and author of sundry celebrated works including Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, is associated with Fortgranite, a County Wicklow house, the contents of which are being sold tomorrow. The Swift family’s rise in fortune originated with an earlier cleric, the Rev Thomas Swift who in 1566 became vicar of St Andrew’s church in Canterbury, Kent and subsequently married the heiress daughter of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Thomas Godwin. The latter was recalled in the first name of the Rev Thomas’ eldest great-grandson, Godwin Swift, a lawyer who after 1660 served as Attorney General to the Viceroy the Duke of Ormonde, and was duly rewarded for his service with an estate in County Kilkenny, Swifte’s Heath. One of Godwin Swift’s younger brothers, Jonathan, also moved to Ireland but died within a year, aged only 27. He left a pregnant wife who seven months later gave birth to a son, also called Jonathan, the future dean. He benefitted from the support of his uncle Godwin (who incidentally had fifteen sons and four daughters by four wives), and then from the latter’s son Willoughby (Jonathan Swift’s cousin) who paid for his education and secured employment as secretary with Sir William Temple. His later clerical and literary careers are well known. What has any of this to do with Rockgranite? In 1711, Godwin Swift’s grandson Thomas Swift married Frances Dennis, heiress of a timber merchant from Kinsale, County Cork: the couple had two sons, the Rev. Meade Swift-Dennis and John Swift-Dennis. In 1782, these two men were joint beneficiaries of the substantial estate left by their late uncle, James Dennis, former Chief Baron of the Exchequer and first (and last) Lord Tracton. The only condition was that they adopt the arms and name of Dennis. They duly did so, the Rev. Meade Dennis subsequently acquiring the Fortgranite estate which was left to his son Thomas Stratford Dennis. As the latter’s middle name indicates, he was related to the Stratford family, his grandmother being a daughter of the first Earl of Aldborough, a name that has been discussed here more than once (see in particular Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013, A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017).
Fortgranite is a house originally dating from c.1730, although sections of the basement suggest that there might already have been a tower house on the site, a not-unusual circumstance. The house was built for one George Pendred, whose family may have been Cornish in origin. He married an heiress Cordelia Saunders, daughter of lawyer and politician Morley Saunders, who c.1716 built a splendid house in County Wicklow, Saunders Grove (burnt 1923). As elsewhere in this take, the son of George and Cordelia Pendred changed his surname to Saunders in order to benefit from a family legacy, and was called Morley Pendred Saunders. His daughter Delia married the Rev. Meade Swift (later Dennis) and in turn their eldest son Thomas Stratford Dennis married his cousin Katherine Saunders. Thus two generations of one family benefitted from marrying two generations of another. In turn Fortgranite appears to have gone through two remodellings in the 19th century, the first c.1810-15 following the marriage of Thomas Dennis to Katherine Saunders, the second undertaken by the couple’s eldest son Meade Dennis in the early 1870s, the last occasion when such enterprises were made before the onset of the Land Wars and consequent decline of Big House estates in the following decade. As a result of these two refurbishments, Fortgranite shows little evidence of its earlier manifestations, displaying the gravitas typical of a high-Victorian country house. Still, until recently the interior was filled with evidence of former eras, and of the diverse families who had both inherited the place and, through marriage and other connections, bequeathed items to it. All either now gone, or about to do so following tomorrow’s contents sale. With them are dispersed the collective links to Patrick Swift, to the Earls of Aldborough, to timber merchants of Cork and Anglican clergy of Westmeath, to an entire history of Ireland’s gentry. All scattered, never to be brought together again.
The bungalow-strewn village of Stratford on Slaney, County Wicklow looks as though it could be a modern suburb almost anywhere. However a handful of houses indicate the place has an older pedigree. The name derives from founder Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough whose architectural ambitions have been discussed here before (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013, A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017). He developed the village during the last quarter of the 18th century, intending it to be a centre for the textile industry, specifically cotton and printing works. At its height in the 1830s, Stratford on Slaney contained 104 houses (and thirteen public houses) with a population of 2,833 people, 1,00o of them employed in the fabric factory. Lord Aldborough built places of worship for Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, a dispensary and several shops. The famine and its attendant woes in the following decade put an end to the business, and so to Stratford where the factory closed and people moved away: in the census of 2016, the village had a population of just 241 persons. These few houses, dating from c.1840 are all that remain of Lord Aldborough’s ambitions.
The remains of Tober House, County Wicklow. The building is believed to date from c.1720 when constructed for a branch of the Powell family (not Power, as is often stated) It appears the house originally rose two storeys over basement but an additional floor was later added above the moulded string course. It’s curious to note that the windows on the ground floor are not symmetrically spaced: one of them on the ground floor being much closer to the entrance than the other. Parts of the slate cladding on the south wall survive, as does the handsome limestone lugged doorcase. Tober is said to have been gutted by fire at the end of the 18th century, perhaps during the time of the 1798 Rebellion when this part of the country was engulfed by violence. It has stood a ruin ever since.
Inside the rear section of the former army barracks at Glencree, County Wicklow. In the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion when this part of the country proved difficult for the authorities to control, a route still called the Military Road was constructed through the Wicklow Mountains, and these buildings erected in 1806 to house 100 troops. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars they vacated the barracks which during the second half of the 19th century was converted into a boy’s reformatory, being used for this purpose until 1940. The site then served as a prison for captured German military personnel (a small cemetery holding the remains of those who died during that period remains close by) and since the mid-1970s one block has been the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation. However, as can be seen, the buildings immediately behind have been left to fall into their present state of disrepair.
A pyramid by the banks not of the Nile but the river Slaney, this is the Aldborough Mausoleum in Baltinglass, County Wicklow. The Earls of Aldborough have been discussed here before, both in relation to Belan, County Kildare (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013) and Aldborough House, Dublin (see A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017). The family’s architectural ambitions are reflected in this tomb, which dates from 1832 and was built to the immediate south of the chancel of the former Cistercian abbey church in Baltinglass, a curious juxtaposition of two different styles. The monastery had been suppressed in 1536 but the chancel here was later converted into a parochial church for the Church of Ireland, remaining in use for this purpose until 1883. The Aldborough Mausoleum is similar to but smaller than the Howard Mausoleum elsewhere in County Wicklow (see A Fitting Memorial, January 10th 2018). Both take the form of a pyramid on a square base and both are constructed from local granite. A door on the north side of the Baltinglass monument gave access to the interior, now stripped of any contents (the pyramids of Egypt not being the only ones subject to grave robbers…)
The drawing room ceiling in Killruddery, County Wicklow. This part of the house was designed for the tenth Earl of Meath by Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison in the 1820s. Usually the names of craftsmen employed in such tasks remain unknown but specific information has been found about this ceiling. The principal plasterer was Henry Pobje of Dublin but he didn’t work alone. Fifty years ago in 1968 when Elizabeth, Countess of Meath was repainting the room, she discovered on top of one section of the cornice the name of Simon Gilligan, together with the date 24th April 1824, which was presumably when the plasterwork was completed.
The shore of Lough Tay, County Wicklow into which the ashes of the Hon Garech Browne were committed yesterday in the company of family and friends. The devoted custodian of the Luggala estate for half a century, his generous cultural patronage, not least through the creation of Claddagh Records, were deservedly eulogised during the afternoon in words and music alike. While Garech has gone, he leaves rich memories and a legacy certain to last as long as water laps on Lough Tay’s shore.
A portrait of Oonagh Guinness commissioned in 1931 from the fashionable artist Philip de László by the sitter’s then-husband Philip Kindersley, who paid £1,575 for the work. Much admired, the picture was exhibited in Paris the following year in a retrospective of de László’s career. Thereafter it hung in the drawing room at Luggala, County Wicklow until Oonagh Guinness’ death in August 1995 when bequeathed to Gay Kindersley, the son of her first marriage: he sold the picture and its whereabouts ever since remain a mystery. On Saturday afternoon (June 16th) at Farmleigh, Dublin I shall be speaking about Oonagh and her son, the recently deceased Garech Browne, and how they made Luggala a magnet for artists. This is part of a series of events to coincide with an exhibition of Irish portraits by Garech’s close friend Anthony Palliser currently being held in the same venue.
For more information on this talk and others in the same series, please see: http://farmleigh.ie/calendar-of-events
No site looks its best in torrential rain, but under these circumstances there is something especially melancholic about Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow. Over the past couple of decades, the historic gardens here have undergone a wonderful and welcome rebirth, but the house which has formed the centrepiece of the estate for over three centuries now stands a roofless shell. It is located on the site of an early Christian settlement, based around a hermitage established by St Mochorog, said to be an Englishman of royal birth who came to Ireland at the start of the 7th century. A monastic community remained here until Henry VIII’s dissolution of all such religious establishments, but some of the building’s foundations have been found under parts of the present garden at Kilmacurragh. Ownership of the lands were then disputed between the local Byrne family and various settlers. However, in 1697 Thomas Acton secured a lease on the property from the Parsons family, then as now based in Birr, County Offaly (where their gardens are likewise renowned). The original Thomas Acton – grandfather of the one already mentioned – is believed to have come to Ireland in the mid-17th century with the Commonwealth army, and like so many other of its members to have stayed because rewarded for his service with property here. In 1716 the younger Thomas Acton obtained from the then-Viscount Rosse ‘leases for lives renewable forever’ at Kilmacurragh; twenty years later his son William Acton married the Viscount’s cousin, Jane Parsons. Thereafter successive generations of Actons would live at Kilmacurragh and develop its gardens until the opening decades of the last century.
Almost from the moment of arrival at Kilmacurragh, the Actons seem to have been particularly interested in the improvement of their demesne. Presumably around the same period that he built the present house at the close of the 17th century, Thomas also laid out a formal Dutch-style park, with canals and formal avenues. He also created a forty-acre Deer Park. In turn his son William Acton laid out a two-mile beech avenue to celebrate his marriage to Jane Parsons in 1736. Fourteen years later she received a premium of £10 from the Dublin Society (founded less than two decades before) for the planting of ‘foreign trees’ and accordingly large numbers of these were given a place on the estate. In 1780 her son, another Thomas Acton, married Sidney Davis who would in turn receive grants from the same society for growing small plantations, using the money to acquire further rare species. Lt. Col. William Acton inherited the estate in 1817 and he undertook further work, both in the demesne and on the house. With regard to the former, he is believed to have built the walled garden with an orangery and ranges of glasshouses, as well as providing employment during the Great Famine by the restoration of the ha-ha that surrounded the old deer park. He also further added to the planting at Kilmacurragh, buying trees from a nursery established nearby at Dunganstown in 1780. When he died in 1854, the estate was inherited by his eldest son, once more Thomas, who did most to give the gardens their present appearance, not least by sweeping away the formal layout created by his forebears more than a century and a half earlier. Thomas Acton and his sister Janet worked closely with David Moore, then curator of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, and with his son and successor in the position, Sir Frederick Moore. It has been noted that Kilmacurragh during this period became an unofficial outpost for the Botanic Gardens, thanks to its climate and soil but also to its sympathetic owner who with his like-minded sibling travelled the world in search of plants to bring home to County Wicklow.
The fourth Thomas Acton never married and when he died in 1908 Kilmacurragh was inherited by his nephew Captain Charles Annesley Acton, another bachelor. He had little time to take care of the place since on the outbreak of the First World War he signed up for service and was killed in September 1915 while assisting another wounded soldier. Kilmacurragh duly passed to his only brother Major Reginald Thomas Annesley Ball-Acton who in turn was killed just eight months later at Ypres: his heir was a two-year old boy Charles (later a well-known music critic for The Irish Times). During his youth the house stood empty and the grounds lay neglected, but in 1932 the place was taken over by a German, Charles Budina, who successfully ran an hotel there. Unfortunately, following Charles Acton’s sale of Kilmacurragh in 1944 a legal dispute seems to have arisen over possession of the property which was eventually acquired by the Land Commission thirty years later. More recently the gardens have come under the care of the National Botanic Gardens, an ideal association given the long links between the two sites. Since then much wonderful work has been undertaken in the grounds to bring them back to peak condition. However the house, which suffered the consequences of two fires in 1978 and 1982, has fallen into a ruinous state. Much has been written about the building of Kilmacurragh, traditionally dated to 1697 when Thomas Acton first took a lease on the land here. However, a few years ago in the Irish Arts Review Peter Pearson, who had examined relevant family papers including Thomas Acton’s account book, proposed that the house was constructed about a decade later. Nevertheless it would still have been one of the first unfortified residences in this part of the country and it appears likely that William Robinson, the Surveyor General (who was paid £1.1.3d by Thomas Acton in 1704 for unspecified work) had a hand in its design. Stylistically Kilmacurragh is suggestive of Robinson’s work, not least a handsome doorcase that once provided access to the building which was originally of five bays and two storeys (with an attic window in the pedimented breakfront). Photographs of the interior when still intact show it to have been extensively panelled, with a staircase featuring barley-sugar balusters not unlike those found in the Red House, Youghal, County Cork and other contemporaneous houses. The wings on either side of the main block were added in the 1840s by Lt Col. William Acton. Alas, nothing of his work on the house, nor that of his predecessors, remains. Today only the outer walls survive to look especially dispiriting in the rain…