In 1961, the April-June issue of the Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin advised readers that a house in County Carlow called Browne’s Hill ‘is to be demolished if a buyer does not come forward within the next month. Situated in a large park with fine timber, Browne’s Hill is in first-rate structural repair and would make a lovely, easily run family home. Although it is on top of a hill with panoramic views, it is not remote, the town of Carlow being only 1 ½ miles away, and Dublin 50 miles.
The house was built in 1763 by an architect named Peters for Robert Browne, in whose family it remained until recently. The three reception rooms have rich plaster ceilings and the original mantlepieces, the front hall is paved with black and white squares, and the kitchen (with Aga) is on the ground floor. The grand staircase leads up to ten bedrooms of various sizes, he principal one being octagonal with windows facing in three directions. There are two bathrooms, three lavatories, oil fired central heating and E.S.B. main electricity.
The courtyard comprises 15 stables, garages, loose boxes, dairy and groom’s house with excellent living accommodation, approximately 5,000 square feet of lofting, all in good condition. For permission to view, apply to – William Mulhall, Auctioneer and Valuer, 60 Dublin St., Carlow.
Price £2,500 with five acres.
A further 68 acres is available, if required, £7,000.’
Browne’s Hill was occupied by successive generations of the same family until 1951 when William Browne-Clayton offered the house for sale with 700 acres. Two years later an English syndicate purchased the estate, along with another nearby, the 1,500 acre Oak Park. These purchases were not well-received locally, farmers in the area believing the land ought to have been divided up among them by the Land Commission. Eventually in 1961 the syndicate, faced with growing hostility, negotiated a deal with the commission, whereby the estate underwent division and the house with its immediate five acres were put on the market with an asking price of £2,500. It was at this point that the Irish Georgian Society placed a notice in its bulletin warning supporters that unless a sympathetic buyer could be found – and soon – the house would be demolished. This news understandably caused alarm among those who were fighting to ensure the survival of the country’s steadily diminishing architectural heritage. Among them was author Anita Leslie, then dividing her time between her own family home, Castle Leslie in County Monaghan, and Oranmore Castle, County Galway, a property she had bought with her husband Bill King. Anita Leslie was also battling to save Dalyston, an important mid-18th century house that had just been sold to a County Longford firm that specialized in stripping old buildings of all saleable assets. Seeing Dalyston unroofed and gradually picked bare, she was determined the same fate should not befall Browne’s Hill and embarked on a campaign to save the property. For a time, she thought it might perhaps be bought by one of her friends, such as the wealthy Simone, Baronne de Bastard who had just spent huge sums restoring the 17th century château de Hautefort in the Dordogne, but it seems Mme de Bastard did not care to purchase a house in the Irish countryside.
As June 1961 drew to a close, the fate of Browne’s Hill seemed sealed: it was destined to be demolished since the best purchase offer had come from the same company that had stripped and unroofed Dalyston. But then the Land Commission, in a rare gesture of sympathy, advised the Irish Georgian Society that it would allow a further six months’ grace before a decision over the house’s future was made. Anita Leslie battled on, helped by another stalwart of the society, Eoin ‘The Pope’ O’Mahony (he had been nicknamed ‘The Pope’ while still a schoolboy after declaring his ambition in life was to hold this title). A wonderfully eccentric character, one-time barrister, orator, genealogist and supporter of many lost causes, in this instance O’Mahony announced that he had persuaded a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge to back a scheme whereby Browne’s Hill would be bought for 2,000 guineas, to be used as a student hostel. Extensive correspondence survives between Anita Leslie, Eoin O’Mahony, and Desmond and Mariga Guinness of the Irish Georgian Society as all of them – sometimes at cross-purposes – sought the best means of securing Browne’s Hill’s long-term future, each of them, and others besides, hounding the local auctioneer William Mulhall for information about possible rival bids for the place. On July 10th, Anita Leslie wrote somewhat histrionically to the Guinnesses, ‘I feel like Atlas holding up the last Georgian houses in Ireland on drooping shoulders & slender purse.’ If necessary, and as a last resort, she was prepared to pay the £2,500 required for Browne’s Hill, thinking it could either be let to a tenant or else run as a guesthouse. Finally, despairing that demolition awaited without her intercession and without telling her husband of the decision, she sent the auctioneer a cheque for the deposit. The cheque was promptly returned: it transpired that another offer for the property had been made – and not by any firm with demolition in mind. Instead, Browne’s Hill was bought by a local travel agent Frank Tully and his wife Patty. They subsequently moved into Browne’s Hill, which remained a family home until Mr Tully died in November 2018. Last month Browne’s Hill came on the market for only the second time since it was built more than 250 years ago.
The original entrance gates to the Browne’s Hill estate, which took the form of a splendid triumphal arch, were sold during this period and bought by University College Dublin, which in 1962 purchased the Lyons estate in County Kildare to run as a research farm. The gates can still be seen there at the entrance to the now-private house at Lyons.