In his 1997 book Grace’s Card, the late Charles Chenevix Trench debunked the notion that after the passage of Penal Laws at the start of the 18th century all Irish landowners who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith were deprived of their property. Certainly a great many members of the old order were dispossessed of their land, and often left the country as a result. But this was by no means always the case; in fact, as Trench demonstrates, some families were able to hold onto their ancient estates and even improve their circumstances through advantageous marriage, even though they were not permitted to hold public office or sit in the Irish Houses of Parliament. Having a single heir was certainly helpful: where there were several male children born into the same family, it was possible one of them would join the Established Church and then make claim to the estate. This happened, for example, with the O’Conors of Balanagare: in 1777 the then-O’Conor Don, Charles – a notable antiquarian – found himself fighting for retention of the family property after his younger brother Hugh became an Anglican (in the end Charles won, and Hugh returned to Catholicism). But there are many other instances of families remaining firmly in possession of their land, such being the case in Meath with the Prestons (as Gormanston Ireland’s premier Viscountcy) and Plunkett (as Fingall Ireland’s premier Earldom). Both these old estates are now broken up but in a neighbouring county another family continues to practise the faith of its forebears and to hold onto some of its ancestral lands.
Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath has been rightly described as offering ‘all that anyone might hope for in an Irish country house. A wooded lakeside setting, a charming and eccentric house of several building periods and a family history of distinction.’ To begin with the family, originally their surname was O’Reilly and they have lived in this spot since the Middle Ages. In 1795 Hugh O’Reilly, despite being a Roman Catholic, was created a baronet but then in 1812 he changed his name to Nugent in order to receive an inheritance from his maternal uncle. It would seem not everyone approved of this switch of nomenclature, since the phrase went around, ‘Better an Old Reilly than a New Gent.’ Nevertheless ever since the family has been called Nugent.
As for their house, high above the main entrance can be seen a carving of the O’Reilly coat of arms carrying the date 1614 but this is considered not to be accurate. It may be that the original southernmost section of the castle is older, perhaps a late-Mediaevel fortified tower although subsequent changes make it hard to assign precise dates to this part of the building. In any case, the block looks to have been modernised in the first half of the 18th century when it was transformed into a two-storey, seven bay house with breakfront centre. At the same time long narrow windows were inserted and larger rooms created inside.
Around 1790 the previously mentioned Hugh O’Reilly chose to enlarge the house by adding a central attic with castellations to the old block and then a range immediately to the north featuring slender corner towers. As is ever the case in Ireland, we cannot be certain who was responsible for the design: a chimney piece in the drawing room is identical to one in Curraghmore, County Waterford known to have been the work of James Wyatt, so his name is sometimes proposed as architect. More frequently however the extension at Ballinlough is attributed to an amateur enthusiast called Thomas Wogan Browne who lived at Castle Browne, County Kildare, which from 1788 he had elaborately reconstructed in the gothic style. Two years after his death in 1812, Castle Browne was sold by Wogan Browne’s brother (a Roman Catholic and general in the army of the King of Saxony) to the Jesuit Order which opened there a boarding school for boys known ever since as Clongowes Wood College.
The extension at Ballinlough bears similarities with similar work carried out around the same time at Malahide Castle, County Dublin; the latter property was then occupied by Hugh O’Reilly’s sister Margaret who would later be created Baroness Talbot of Malahide. Hogan Browne is believed to have been the designer of this, and therefore Ballinlough’s extension is likewise attributed to him.
While the rooms in the newer section of Ballinlough are certainly very fine (and will be given consideration here on another occasion) all today’s photographs are of one particular area of the house: its glorious double-height entrance hall with stairs climbing to an unusual bridge gallery. Presumably dating from around the time the building received its first refurbishment, the decoration is exuberant if on occasion somewhat unsophisticated, as though whoever was in charge had discovered a manual on current taste in design and applied its contents liberally throughout. This is part of the hall’s charm: its sheer gusto. The oak panelling is relatively restrained – note the exceptionaly tall and slender lugged door and window frames – but a freer hand has been employed for the carving on the stairs with their fluted balusters and foliate scrolls on both sides of the gallery base. This work is supplemented on the upper sections of the walls, the plasterwork embellished by swags and drapes of foliage and flowers and diverse musical instruments. In this instance, Casey and Rowan in their Buildings of Ireland guide to North Leinster reference similarities to nearby Drewstown, County Meath which is attributed to Francis Bindon but perhaps Ballinlough’s entrance hall was merely influenced by what had been done in the former house rather than designed by the same person.
As all these images indicate, Ballinlough Castle survives in wonderful condition but the house was almost lost in the last century. When Sir Hugh Nugent inherited the estate in 1927 he found it in poor condition and much reduced in size by the Land Commission which proposed to demolish the family home. Fortunately this did not come to pass and today Ballinlough is occupied by the eighth baronet, Nick along with his wife Alice and their children. They host a variety of events on the estate during the year, not least the highly successful Body & Soul Festival each summer.
To conclude with one more picture, the portrait reflected in a mirror below hangs on the stairs at Ballinlough and represents George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham who in the 1780s served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and while in this country established by Royal Warrant the Order of St Patrick. His wife was Lady Mary Nugent, who as her name indicates was related to the family at Ballinlough. A Roman Catholic, in 1798 Lady Mary invited the Reverend Charles O’Conor to become her chaplain and librarian at Stowe, her husband’s seat in Buckinghamshire. Fr Charles was the grandson of the Charles O’Conor already mentioned. He was also brother of another O’Conor Don, Matthew another notable historian and, like the Nugents of Ballinlough, a loyal adherent to the faith of his fathers.
For more information on Ballinlough, see: http://www.ballinloughcastle.ie
Ballinlough will be hosting the third Katie Nugent Duathlon on Sunday October 20th. To sign up or to find out more information about this event, see: http://precisiontiming.primo-solutions.co.uk/ps/event/KatieNugentDuathlon2013