The glorious interiors of Glasnevin House, Dublin have been shown here before (see Misjudging a Book by its Cover, December 22nd 2014) with the focus o the building’s plasterwork. Since then the former entrance hall has been restored and now looks as splendid as the other ground floor rooms. Among the space’s outstanding features now properly revealed is a substantial chimneypiece. Dating from c.1760 it looks to be of stained pine and since the overdoors in other areas of the house are attributed to Dublin master carver John Kelly (in Irish Furniture, the Knight of Glin and James Peill, 2007), it seems reasonable to assume this work also came from his hand.
The façade of Walton Court, County Cork. Overlooking Oysterhaven harbor, the house is believed to occupy the site of an earlier tower house constructed by the Roche family. In 1643 land in this area was acquired by Captain Swithin Walton, and it was his descendant Thomas Walton who built Walton Court: on a stone in the pediment are his initials and the date 1776. In the 19th century the property passed by marriage to another local family, the Roberts: it now provides accommodation and food to paying guests. The land in front of Walton Court descends to the water and then looks across the estuary to Newborough House which has recently been restored.
Above is a view of Dripsey Castle, County Cork, a late-mediaeval tower house originally built by the MacCarthys of Muskerry. This was to have been the subject of attention here during 2014, but a great many other subjects intervened. Today seems an opportune moment to look at some of those interventions, buildings explored by the Irish Aesthete over the past twelve months, not least a number which, like Dripsey Castle, are now spectacular ruins.
Ireland is a country strewn with ruins, many of them the skeletal remains of once-great houses. Typical in this respect is Moore Hall, County Mayo seen in the first two photographs above. Dating from 1792, it is is believed to have been designed by Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a mere shell. A Roman Catholic family the Moores were especially good to their tenants during and after the Great Famine but neither their charity, nor the fame of the last heir, writer George Moore, was enough to spare the house, maliciously burnt down by local members of the IRA in February 1923. For more on Moore Hall, see When Moore is Less, June 30th. Next can be seen two photographs of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, once home to John Fitzpatrick, first Earl of Clare. His successors were not as wealthy as their forebear and in 1888 the entire contents of Mount Shannon, including its superlative library, had to be sold to pay creditors. The house itself passed into other hands a few years later and survived until once again burnt out by the IRA in June 1920 (see A Spectacular Fall from Grace, January 20th). Dromore Castle, also in County Limerick lasted a little longer but then it was only built in the 1860s to the designs of Edward William Godwin. Commissioned by William Pery, third Earl of Limerick, Dromore never proved satisfactory (it suffered from damp) and the family seems to have abandoned it by the 1920s. It was sold at the end of the following decade to a local timber merchant but around 1954 the whole place was unroofed to avoid payment of property rates, a common fate for buildings at the time. Dromore was the subject of two features: Une Folie de Grandeur, December 30th 2013 and More and More Dromore, March 3rd.
Even when great houses like Moore Hall or Mount Shannon were newly constructed the countryside was already speckled with ruins, predominantly of medieval religious properties. Typical in this respect is Askeaton Friary, County Limerick seen in the first two photographs above. This was founded in the early 1420s by the Franciscan order and remains notable for its intact cloister with twelve arches to each side. (See A Cloistered World, February 10th). In neighbouring County Galway, the Franciscans also established a great house at Ross Errilly (To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th) which survived until late in the 18th century. Much beloved by romantically-minded Victorians, Ross Errilly was described by John Murray in his 1866 Handbook for Travellers in Ireland as probably containing ‘more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.’ Ross Errilly remains, but the bones have been tidied away.
Nor are any on display in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Kilkenny (see Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, October 20th) which lies in the centre of this ancient town. Around the old church the principal families of the area erected memorials to themselves, making this the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments. St Mary’s is due to be restored for civic use but one hopes this will not destroy the character of the graveyard.
There are always a number of important houses in Ireland looking for new and sympathetic owners. One of these at present is Milltown Park, County Offaly (see Waiting to be Woken, July 7th). A blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720, although this may have been added later. Still, Milltown is an important early 18th century property which until now has always belonged to the Spunner (more recently White-Spunner) family and reflects that unbroken continuity.
In County Wicklow, the history of Mount John was charmingly told in Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir, An Irish Childhood which recounted her early years living in the house until it was sold by her parents in 1914. Now it is for sale again, and whoever acquires the property will discover it was constructed over several phases, the east-facing front with its large reception rooms and bow ends most likely added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. (See An Irish Childhood, September 29th).
On the other side of the country, New Hall, County Clare is one of the most architecturally important houses currently on the market. New Hall has been attributed to Francis Bindon, although this is open to question. What cannot be doubted is the beauty of this property, with its mellow brick façade focussed on a central balustraded and urned octangular bow window incorporating pedimented front door and concluding on either side in bows. Inside are stucco’ed rooms and in the entrance hall an immense organ that proves to be a cupboard. New Hall was explored over two weeks in Leaving the Empty Room, August 18th and New Blood for New Hall, August 25th.
It is at times impossible not to grow despondent over the want of interest, especially from regional and central government, in the preservation of Ireland’s architectural heritage. In late November Senator David Norris denounced the state of O’Connell Street, Dublin. This is supposed to be the state’s principal thoroughfare and yet for many years it has looked as shoddy as a shanty town with gaping sites and gimcrack shops and games halls. Developed by Luke Gardiner in the middle of the 18th century as Sackville Mall, O’Connell Street was once the capital’s premier address. Its seemingly unstoppable decline was discussed here much earlier in the year (see On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, February 3rd).
Another cause for concern is the threatened sale of the remaining contents of Bantry House, County Cork. During the early decades of the 19th century, this great building was filled with treasures by the second Earl of Bantry. Since then successive generations of the family have struggled to maintain the building and gradually disposed of items from the collection. What is still in place includes valuable French tapestries, some associated with members of the French royal family. These were due to be auctioned on the premises last October but the event was cancelled owing to the absence of a relevant licence. However, it is important to remember the sale has only been postponed and is likely to take place during next spring, thereby diminishing still further Ireland’s collective cultural heritage. The predicament of Bantry House, and the issues it raises, were discussed in When it’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th.
Another ongoing scandal is the condition of Aldborough House in central Dublin. After Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to the second Earl of Aldborough’s ambition, the building was completed in 1798, just two years before the Act of Union rendered such properties surplus to requirements. Although much of the surrounding grounds were lost to public housing in the last century, the building itself survived in reasonable condition in public ownership until the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised in 1999 and Eircom (as the organisation was renamed) offered Aldborough House for sale. Six years later it was bought for €4.5 million by a company called Aldborough Developments: contrary to its name, this allowed the house to slide ever further into decay. Aldborough House was sold a few months ago but the new owner does not appear to have any interest in its welfare, if the photographs above – taken just last week – are an indication: windows are left open to the elements, the roof is no better than was formerly the case and the ground immediately behind is being used – presumably with approval from a consistently indifferent Dublin City Council – for parking and car washing. The fate of Aldborough House remains, as described on January 13th, A Thundering Disgrace.
Lest it seems this blog is all gloom, there have been more cheerful circumstances to report, not least various weeks when attention was given to the restoration of an historic building. One such is Ballinderry Park, County Galway, bought by its current owners in 2001 and since then benefitting from a full and sympathetic overhaul. Dating from the first half of the eighteenth century and largely unaltered except for the addition of a two-storied return to the rear, Ballinderry’s finest feature is its staircase which, together with the principal reception rooms, give the building an air of what the owners rightly describe as ‘solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale.’ (For more on the house, see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th).
Down in a remote part of County Cork, another house lay unoccupied for more than half a century after the death of a previous owner until discovered by its present one. Like Ballinderry, this property had suffered the consequences of neglect, but that did not act as a deterrent: on the contrary as far as was possible, the character of the house was left unchanged; in the kitchen, for example, the original tiled floor and ochre wall colouring was preserved, with all additions determinedly sympathetic. The result is proof both that no building can be deemed beyond redemption and that even the plainest property can be transformed under the right hands, such as those discussed in A Dash of Panache, May 19th.
And so, more recently, to County Kilkenny and Ballysallagh, another country house which might have been lost forever had it not been for the couple who rescued the building in 1987 and since then have devoted huge amounts of effort towards ensuring the spirit of the place is preserved. Ballysallagh dates from the 1720s and has undergone little structural or decorative change since then, aside from the introduction of folding doors with a wide fanlight in 1810 and on the adjacent wall a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze. The property deservedly featured in Maurice Craig’s 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and featured again here in Of the Middle Size, November 24th.
We end therefore on an optimistic note, buoyed by an awareness some people here in Ireland do care for our architectural heritage and are playing their part to make sure it has a long and loved future. Below is a photograph of another house, Gloster, County Offaly, which is also the beneficiary of an extensive and ongoing programme of restoration. As they have during the past year, such buildings will continue to feature in The Irish Aesthete in 2015.
Among the most engaging books of architectural history published during the last century was Maurice Craig’s Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976). From its title alone, one recognises this was a work out of the ordinary: Maurice was not interested in examining the more familiar big houses of Ireland many of which even by that date had been ‘accorded some fitting attention in fittingly sumptuous books.’ Instead he turned his well-honed eye on a category of dwellings which had hitherto been the subject of little scrutiny; indeed since then it has not received much more coverage. ‘If I have laid what some readers may think is undue emphasis on certain buildings which may appear small, insignificant and not very exciting to look at,’ he wrote in his preface, ‘it is because I believe they are essential links in the chain of evolution.’
Later in the Introduction he commented, ‘An unhappily high proportion of the houses illustrated in this book have either disappeared or have been mutilated or have fallen into disrepair. There are three reasons for this. One is that there seems to be a baleful correlation between architectural quality and misfortune. Too often it is the best buildings which fall victim to malice, neglect, ignorance, poverty or some amalgam of these evils; or to what can be worst of all, uncertainty of title especially when combined with bucolic paranoia. A second reason is that when a house is threatened or destroyed, the least we can do for it is to record its qualities, since it can no longer speak for itself. Finally there are times when the dereliction of a house gives opportunities for investigating, measuring and anatomising it, which would not occur if in normal occupation.’
So Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size concentrated on those properties ‘built by or lived in by minor gentry or prosperous farmers, or by manufacturers or traders, or occupied as dower houses, agent’s houses or as glebe-houses. The gulf between the ‘big house’ and the cottage has perhaps been over-emphasised by historians, and too much has been made of the absence of a middle class.’ The house featured today, Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny, is a representative example of this category.
The land on which Ballysallagh stands was for long owned by members of the Purcell family. The Purcells were of Anglo-Norman origin, their name believed to derive from the old French word ‘pourcel’ meaning piglet. Sir Hugh Purcell is said to have participated in the Norman invasion of Ireland and in the early 13th century his grandson, also called Sir Hugh, married a daughter of Theobald FitzWalter, Chief Butler of Ireland. This union was the origin of the link between the family and the powerful Butlers; in 1328 James Butler, first Earl of Ormond granted the Purcells the feudal title of Baron of Loughmoe, County Tipperary. The grandfather of the late 17th century composer Henry Purcell was a cousin of the Baron of Loughmoe.
Allied to the Butlers, the Purcells were concentrated in Counties Tipperary and Kilkenny and the lands of Ballysallagh remained in their possession during the Tudor colonisation despite periodic attempts at rebellion: in December 1571 Nicholas Purcell fitz Edmund of Ballysallagh was pardoned by the crown authorities, as was Edmund Purcell in 1589 and Edmund Purcell fitz Nicholas in 1600. However in 1653 Nicholas Purcell forfeited Ballysallagh and 758 acres under the Cromwellian seizures, and a large number of members of the family were certified for transplantation to Connaught. Yet the family remained on the site, most likely as tenants; in the early 18th century James Purcell was living at Ballysallagh and in 1720 his daughter and heiress, Mary Purcell wed Gerald Byrne from County Carlow who was assigned the property as part of the marriage settlement. It seems likely the couple built the present house soon afterwards: a stone at the front carries the date 1722.
Gerald and Mary Byrne had several children, only one of whom, their daughter Catherine, survived to adulthood. (Gerald Byrne also had an illegitimate son, James Byrne to whom in his will he left farm stock and land.) Dying in 1740 at the age of 26 Catherine predeceased both her parents but not before marrying William Doyle of County Kildare, with whom she had three children, two sons and a daughter. One of those sons, Gerald Doyle, inherited Ballysallagh from his grandfather Gerald Byrne in 1760. Two years after the death of Catherine Doyle her husband, Gerald Doyle’s father, had married again, his second wife being Frances Purcell of Usher’s Island, Dublin; with her, he had another three children, once more two sons and a daughter. However, neither Gerald Doyle nor his older brother Laurence married and in 1785 they sold their interest in Ballysallagh and its 450 acres to the family of their step-mother. Thus it remained in the possession of the Doyles, albeit not descended by blood from the original Purcells. Instead it belonged to the children of William Doyle’s second marriage, first another William Doyle, who also lived in Rutland Square, Dublin and died unmarried in 1847 and then Joseph Doyle, a doctor who served as Surgeon to the College at Maynooth, County Kildare. He likewise married a Purcell and the couple had a son John Joseph Doyle who inherited Ballysallagh and lived there until his death in 1890 at the age of 75. John Joseph’s son Gerald Doyle was the last of the family to live at Ballysallagh: following his death in 1939 for the first time the place was put on the market.
Despite Ballysallagh’s somewhat convoluted history of descent given above, the fact that the house did not pass beyond different branches of the same family for more than 200 years explains why it remained relatively unchanged after being first built in the early 18th century. There are a few decorative elements that were altered according to shifts in fashion and perhaps the advent of additional funds: the drawing room, for example, contains a white marble chimney piece that looks to be from the mid-19th century. Prior to that, in 1810 folding doors were introduced halfway back the entrance hall so as to separate it from the rear stairs. Above those doors is a splendidly wide fanlight (to provide more light to the front section of the hall should the doors be shut) and on an adjacent wall hangs a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze.
Internally the house follows a tripartite plan, with main reception rooms to right and left of the entrance hall and behind these smaller rooms, a study and butler’s pantry. The wooden staircase is accommodated in a full height extension to the rear of the main block and leads to a spacious first-floor landing, an especially pleasing feature in houses such as this, with four bedrooms, two on either side. Another staircase of Kilkenny limestone, also fitted into the rear extension, provides access to the basement which continues to hold the house’s kitchen and other service areas. Externally, the building has a simple but satisfying symmetry, of five bays and two storeys over a raised basement. Maurice Craig reproduced the facade in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and noted a number of distinctive features such as a limestone plat-band in place of a cornice beneath the steeply pitched roof (in fact, there is a cornice but partially obscured by the guttering), and the fact that the end quoins are bolder and better finished than those of the single-bay breakfront. The entrance is approached by a flight of limestone steps, its door having a Gothic-glazed fanlight that the present owners have copied for the small lunette window in the breakfront pediment.
In February 1940 Ballysallagh and some 117 acres were offered for sale, a poster produced by the auctioneers describing it as a ‘splendid stone-built residential and agricultural property.’ At the start of the following month, a two-day auction saw the dispersal of the house’s contents: a newspaper advertisement went through many of the lots, including in the entrance hall a ‘large Antique Hanging China Display Press, enclosed by two glazed panel doors of unique design, Ornamental Frieze and Fluted Columns.’ Either this failed to find a buyer or the difficulty of removing the cabinet from the wall was recognised. Whatever the explanation, it remains in place, unlike other pieces accumulated by successive generations of Purcells, Byrnes and Doyles, such as the drawing room’s ‘Splendid Round Mahogany table, with rope edge and claw feet’ or the dining room’s ‘Small Sheraton mahogany wine cooler, with brass mountings on castors.’ These meagre descriptions are all that remain to indicate how the house was furnished over the course of two centuries. The present owners bought Ballysallagh in 1987 and since then have worked without cease to bring the place to its present excellent condition: looking at it today, one might imagine the property had never changed hands. Extensive work has been undertaken both indoors and outside. With regard to the latter, new formal gardens have been laid out behind the house and a maple walk created leading to a small folly. In his Introduction to Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, Maurice Craig advised that the buildings featured had been chosen ‘for a combination of their architectural quality and the significance of their typology of the subject.’ Ballysallagh deserves attention and plaudits for the same reasons: even since the book first appeared quite a number of properties it covered have been lost. This makes Ballysallagh’s survival all the more precious.
The Dawson family of County Monaghan came from Yorkshire to Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I, Thomas Dawson becoming a Burgess of Armagh. Subsequently Richard Dawson, a Cromwellian cornet of horse, assembled the nucleus of the family’s estate in the 1650s and 1660s through the acquisition of thirty-one townlands, based around a property called Dawson’s Grove on the banks of a chain of lakes separating counties Cavan and Monaghan. Richard Dawson’s only child, a daughter named Frances, married her cousin Walter Dawson. Their son Richard was an Alderman of Dublin, an MP for County Kilkenny and the owner of a family bank. He further expanded the estates both in County Monaghan and elsewhere. With his wife Elizabeth, daughter of John Vesey, Archbishop of Tuam, he had four children, their third son being Thomas Dawson born in 1725. After coming into his inheritance the latter built a new house at Dawson’s Grove in the early 1770s and also bought and redeveloped a residence in London, Cremorne House, Chelsea where the garden designer Nathaniel Richmond was commissioned to lay out the grounds (although the house is long gone, this is now the site of Cremorne Gardens, just down river from Battersea Bridge). In May 1770 Thomas Dawson was created Baron Dartrey of Dawson’s Grove, and in June 1785 Viscount Cremorne.
In August 1754 Thomas Dawson married Lady Anne Fermor, youngest daughter of the first Earl of Pomfret, with whom he had two children before she died in March 1769. Her husband’s grief was considerable, but not so great as to prevent his marrying just over a year later Philadelphia Hannah Freame. She was the granddaughter of William Penn, whose family owned land in County Cork but who is better known as the founder of Pennsylvania. By his second marriage to Hannah Callowhill William Penn had eight children one of whom, Thomas Penn, married Lady Juliana Fermor, eldest daughter of Lord Pomfret. This explains how Thomas Dawson should have met his second wife Philadelphia, whose mother Margaret Freame, was another of William Penn’s children. In other words, he married his first wife’s niece. And, as her name indicates, she was born in the city of Philadelphia in 1740.
Philadelphia Freame’s marriage to Thomas Dawson was marked by the building of a house for the Dartrey estate’s agent, Charles Mayne, which was then given the name Freame Mount. Lady Anne Fermor, however, was commemorated in a more original fashion with the construction of a mausoleum which stands in the middle of Black Island on raised ground facing the former site of Dawson’s Grove. Based on a surviving elevation for the west front which shows the inspiration of the Pantheon in Rome, the design of the Dartrey Mausoleum has been attributed to James Wyatt, making it the English architect’s first commission in Ireland and contemporaneous with Wyatt’s Pantheon, the famous assembly rooms on London’s Oxford Street.
The building in Monaghan is a tall, square block built of locally-fired red brick raised on a limestone plinth. The exterior, featuring a sequence of blind windows and oculi, is relieved on the western front (which would have been visible from Dawson’s Grove) by a shallow tetrastyle portico with four pilasters (note their unusual fluted capitals) beneath a pedimented entablature. Above this cube rises a dome, its open centre providing the only light for the interior which would have been even more dramatic when viewed on nights with a full moon.
In August 1774 the Dublin Hibernian Journal reported, ‘A few days ago was landed in Dublin a beautiful Marble Monument done by Joseph Wilton, Esq., of Portland Street, London, which Lord Dartrey is to erect in a Temple at his seat in Co. Monaghan, to the memory of his late wife, Lady Anne Dawson, daughter of the late Earl of Pomfret.’ The London-born Wilton, a founder-member of the Royal Academy, had in 1764 been appointed ‘Sculptor to his Majesty’ by George III. His funerary monument in the Dartrey Mausoleum, for which he was paid 1,000 guineas, is the only commission he received in Ireland; during the same period he also sculpted a bust of Thomas Dawson, now in the Yale Center for British Art.
Like that piece, Wilton’s work inside the mausoleum is carved in Carrara marble and was installed against the eastern wall above a plain altar. A plaque recalls both Lady Anne, described as possessing ‘all the external Advantages which contribute to form a shining Distinction on Earth’, and the couple’s prematurely deceased daughter Henrietta Anne ‘who lived long enough to justify all the fairest Hopes of a Mother.’ To one side of a large funerary urn are the lifesize figures of Lady Anne’s grieving husband and their young son clinging to his father in both terror and sorrow; the pair of them gaze up at the hovering form of an interceding angel. It is a remarkably theatrical piece of work, and must have been especially effective when seen by moonlight.
The subsequent fortunes of the Dartrey Mausoleum have been mixed. At some date in the 19th century, the dome was taken, or fell, down and replaced with a shallow slated pyramidal roof, and the brick walls plastered. The last member of the Dawson family to live at Dartrey, Lady Edith Windham, eldest child of the second Earl of Dartrey, sold the estate in 1946 to the Irish Forestry Commission (now Coillte) which continues to own the land on which the mausoleum stands. Dawson’s Grove, rebuilt in the 1840s as Dartrey Castle, was demolished and the view across to Black Island obscured by dense planting of evergreen woodland. Meanwhile the mausoleum was left to languish and although the Irish Georgian Society undertook some repairs in the 1960s, the building succumbed to decay, its roof was lost and the sculptural group – as can be seen in photographs above – seriously vandalised.
Such might have remained the case, had it not been for the energy, imagination and commitment of a local group, the Dartrey Heritage Association which over the past decade has steadily worked to ensure the restoration of this outstanding monument. Securing funding from a variety of sources, including the local County Council, the Heritage Council and once more the Irish Georgian Society, together with monies raised by other means, the DHA has now almost completed this project. The building is once more intact and with a domed roof, and inside the sculptural group has been repaired with missing sections scrupulously replaced. The entire project is a wonderful testament to what can be achievied by a local voluntary body with sufficient determination and persistence, and ought to serve as an example for others throughout the country. Above all the restoration of the Dartrey Mausoleum shows that nothing is beyond salvation, provided the will is there.
Not necessarily the best photograph to have been shown here, but it gives some idea of an exhibition currently running at 5 Rutland Street, Limerick. The house dates from the 1770s and is one of a terrace that marks both chronologically and literally the onset of the city’s Newtown Pery district. After serving as a butcher’s shop, in recent years the premises – like its neighbours – has stood empty and neglected. However, overseen by conservation architect Cáit ni Cheallachain and historian Dr Ursula Callaghan, and as part of the local Irish Georgian Society chapter’s contribution to Limerick City of Culture leaks have been fixed, an outbreak of dry rot arrested, wallpaper stripped, paintwork cleaned (including all the staircase banisters), and the entire site given a fresh purpose: as a Pop Up Museum exploring aspects of Limerick’s rich cultural heritage from the Georgian era. This is an imaginative and exciting initiative showing what can be done in a building that otherwise risked becoming further prey to vandalism and decay. The Pop Up Museum is open at weekends from 10am to 5pm and on Wednesday evenings from 4pm to 9pm and runs until the end of this month: pop in while you can.
The name Ballyfin derives from the Irish An Baile Fionn, meaning the fair place, and it’s an apt description for the house and estate in County Laois which now bear that name. Originally this part of the country was under the control of the O’More clan, but like so many others they were displaced of their lands during the settlement period in the 16th century. Laois was one of two counties created by Queen Mary in 1556 when it was called Queen’s County (and its main town, now Portlaoise, was Maryborough) and by the early decades of the following century Ballyfin had passed into the control of Sir Piers Crosby who is said to have built a castle here. In the disturbances of the 1640s, however, Crosby lost this territory when it came into the ownership of one Periam Pole, younger son of the Devonshire antiquarian Sir William Pole. In turn his son, likewise called Periam, would be confirmed as being in possession of the land, part of a larger estate of some 3,500 acres.
His son William Pole succeeded him in 1704 and some time later pulled down the old Crosby castle, replacing it with a more commodious house, these changes being described by a nephew as ‘grand and expensive and his designs were elegant, as his gardens show.’ But the expenditure meant that by 1727, the same relation would comment that William Pole ‘died worth no ready money between his improving Ballyfin and his wife’s going constantly every winter to Dublin.’ His elder son, another Periam – who undertook restoration on the house following a fire – died childless in 1748 and so the estate went to his sibling, another William Pole. The latter and his wife Lady Sarah Moore, a daughter of the fifth Earl of Drogheda, greatly developed Ballyfin’s parkland: in May 1759 Emily, Countess of Kildare could write to her husband, ‘Yesterday I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin…There is a piece of water there very like what I fancy ours will be, only broader; fine plantations and the greatest variety of trees and flowers almost that I ever saw anywhere.’ Over 250 years later Lady Kildare’s description remains apt.
In addition to the grounds, William and Lady Sarah Pole also carried out work on the house built by his father, including ‘an elegant and commodious square of offices’ and, in 1778, an extension to the building that provided a new entrance hall and series of reception rooms. In 1784 William Ashford painted a number of views of Ballyfin which provide us with an idea of its appearance at the time; one of these pictures was engraved by Thomas Milton and published in 1787 in his Views of Seats in Ireland. The house is shown across the lake created by the Poles, a fourteen-bay elevation conforming to Milton’s description of it as ‘plain and modern-built’, the result being ‘an excellent family mansion’ with rooms ‘large and commodious, fitted up with taste’. Another engraving of the same building in 1794 shows its uneven façade and provides confirmation that the owners were planning still further developments. On the other hand, as was so often the case in Ireland, ambition outstripped income and it is apparent the Poles were heavily indebted by the time of their deaths in 1780 and 1781 respectively. Still, they were determined the improvements they had undertaken should not be dissipated, William Pole declaring in his will that ‘the person for the time being who shall enjoy my mansion house and demesne of Ballyfin shall engage and employ a skilful gardiner at the salary of one hundred pounds Sterling a year to attend and take care of the improvements…so as to keep and preserve the same in good and compleat order, repair and condition.’
Like his elder brother William Pole had no children, and therefore Ballyfin passed to a godson and great-nephew, William Wellesley, whose father was the music-loving first Earl of Mornington and whose younger brother would become the great Duke of Wellington. Wellesley’s inheritance came with the proviso that he adopt the name Pole, and so he became William Wellesley-Pole. Although he spent time in this country as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1809 and 1812 and as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer during part of the same period, Wellesley-Pole, who would be made first Baron Maryborough in 1821 (and on the death of another brother in 1842 become third Earl of Mornington), spent the greater part of his career in England. In 1813 he offered his Irish estate for sale, a fortunate move since it would otherwise have been squandered by his eldest son.
This gentleman was one of the most notorious rakes of the early 19th century. Born William Wellesley-Pole, in 1812 shortly before marrying for the first time he added the surname of his heiress fiancée, thus becoming William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. The unfortunate bride, Catherine Tylney-Long, at the time generally called ‘The Wiltshire Heiress’ was believed to be the richest commoner in England, with estates providing an annual rental income of £40,000 per annum and financial investments worth £300,000. Her husband, on the other hand, had only debts and within a decade was forced to flee to mainland Europe to evade his creditors. His last years were spent in London, living on a weekly pension of ₤10 provided by his cousin Arthur Wellesley, second Duke of Wellington. On his death in July 1857, the Morning Chronicle obituarist summarised him as follows: ‘A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance.’
Instead of being frittered away by William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the Ballyfin estate changed hands in 1813 when it was bought by Sir Charles Henry Coote, premier Baronet of Ireland. The first of his family to come to Ireland had been an earlier Charles Coote, like Periam Pole originally from Devonshire. As a young soldier he came to this country to make his fortune and was eventually rewarded with large grants of land as well as a lifetime possession of several valuable state offices. He died in 1642 during the Confederate Wars and was succeeded by his son Charles who supported Oliver Cromwell but, after the latter’s death, championed the restoration of Charles II and was thus granted the title of Earl of Mountrath. This title passed down through successive generations until the death in 1802 of the childless seventh earl who left his Mountrath estate of some 50,000 acres to a kinsman, Charles Henry Coote, then a ten-year old schoolboy. The property was held in trust until he came of age, conveniently just as Ballyfin was offered for sale and a year before his marriage to Caroline Whaley (a niece of the famous Irish gambler Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley).
Although the Cootes had been considerable landowners in Queen’s County since the early 17th century, they do not appear to have had a significant residence there. The ruins survive of two houses associated with the family, Castle Cuffe, built by the first Sir Charles Coote and named after his wife Dorothea Cuffe, and Rush Hall, but neither was in use by the time the ninth baronet came into his inheritance. Therefore it made sense to acquire an existing estate, especially one such as Ballyfin which had benefitted from the attention of successive earlier owners. He and his new wife settled here and when the place was visited by Atkinson in 1815, he reported in The Irish Tourist, ‘The dwelling-house of Ballyfin is a large building in the form of a half-square, it has an aspect of neatness and extent, but in its exterior appearance nothing very ornamental or magnificent. The rooms, however, which I saw, were spacious and furnished in a stile of elegance suitable to the place. Under this head may be classed, as an article of the first consideration, a rich and valuable collection of paintings, the work of eminent artists.’
It was perhaps because they required a better setting for their collection of ‘rich and valuable’ paintings that in the early 1820s the Cootes decided to embark on a rebuilding programme at Ballyfin. It would appear that the initial intention was to remodel and extend the existing structure, using the services of a relatively unknown architect called Dominick Madden (he would go on to design several Roman Catholic cathedrals in the west of Ireland). However, here as elsewhere Madden ran into trouble with his clients – in 1810 he had been dismissed from a position with the Board of Works for ‘irregular conduct’ including the theft of furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge – and was replaced by the ubiquitous Morrisons, Richard and his son William Vitruvius. They proposed an entirely new scheme that even involved the demolition of Madden’s recently completed library and vestibule, and somehow succeeded in persuading Sir Charles Coote to go along with their plans.
As Kevin V Mulligan wrote in a 2005 article on the house, ‘The detail and quality of finishes in the executed building, indicate that the Morrisons’ skills in spatial planning and decorative design were matched only by their powers of persuasion. The wealth of materials available to the Morrisons is seen in the ability to execute all the elevations in smooth sandstone ashlar. The conservatory, a feature represented in the Morrisons’ earliest proposals, seems to have been the only element sacrificed until Richard Turner’s fragile curvilinear glass cell was added sometime after 1855. Internally, a stunning collection of scagliola columns included the most expensive that could be obtained from the Lambeth works of William Croggon who almost certainly provided them here, represented by the imitation verde antico Corinthian columns that contribute to the imperial grandeur of the saloon. Elsewhere, endless mahogany for doors and bookcases and an assorted range of exotic woods used to remarkable effect in the parquetry floors constituted more expensive materials; added to this were the contents of seven packing cases sent from Italy in 1821 through the agency of the artist Gaspare Gabrielli which may have included the matching chimneypieces with Bacchanalian friezes that now serve the saloon and dining room or indeed the Roman mosaic set into the stone floor of the entrance hall. But all of this barely compares with the wealth of artistry available in the craftsmen who fashioned these materials, especially those who modelled and cast the extraordinary stuccowork, an eclectic decorative display that remains the principal glory of Ballyfin.’
Ballyfin remained in the ownership of the Cootes for just over 100 years before steeply declining income, the loss of the estate to the Land Commission and changing political circumstances obliged the family to sell. In 1928 the house and demesne were acquired by the Patrician Brothers for £10,000, only a fraction of what it had cost to build the Morrison-designed property a century before. The religious order operated a boarding school on the premises until they in turn announced an intention to sell in September 2001. After visiting Ballyfin the following January, I wrote that by this date some of the rooms had become ‘barely habitable, because in recent years the house has suffered from water seeping through the roof and into the building. A corner of the ground-floor drawing-room, for example, shows evidence of serious damage from this problem.’ While problems with the roof had been stabilised, ‘more costly work is still required on the parapets and corbels. Then money will need to be spent elsewhere on the building, taking care of those sections which have been ruined by damp as well as rescuing such features as the saloon’s marquetry floor, areas of which have become dislodged, and the unique glass and iron conservatory dating from the 1850s and believed to have been designed by Richard Turner…And the grounds are also suffering from a shortage of funds for their upkeep: trees need to be thinned or felled, while other sections of the woodlands should be replanted; the grottoes and follies, including a 19th-century “medieval” observation tower, are suffering; and one of the neo-classical gate lodges is almost derelict. Remarkable and deserving of support as Ballyfin may be, the question must be asked: who can or will come to its salvation?’
Amazingly, a new owner did come forward to save Ballyfin and to undertake the slow and costly programme of restoration that the house required. Work began in 2002 and continued until 2010, meticulous, methodical and almost without equal in this country. Ballyfin then reopened as an hotel, but not – as is too often the case – with its parkland despoiled and its interiors butchered. On the contrary, the sensitivity of the house’s present owners and the skills of the team they assembled to resuscitate the property means that this is one of the finest restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the past century. As a result Ballyfin today once more lives up to its name of being the fair place.
For this week’s account I am much indebted to Kevin V Mulligan’s excellent 2011 publication, Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne.
Ballyfin is now a superlatively luxurious hotel, for more information see: http://www.ballyfin.com