Follies of all varieties have featured here in the past, but one genre is especially interesting: the building designed to look older than was actually the case. In Ireland, some of the earliest examples of this style, in the form of faux-antique rusticated buildings, can be found at Tollymore Park, County Down (see Do the Wright Thing « The Irish Aesthete), the design of, or at least inspiration for, which came from Thomas Wright who visited the estate in September 1746. Wright is also credited with being responsible for the Rustic Arch at Belvedere, County Westmeath (see Very Mannered « The Irish Aesthete) which dates from around the same period as he was in this country. But the fashion for such structures lingered long after his departure, as is demonstrated by the gatelodge at Bracklyn, County Westmeath (see Refined Rusticity « The Irish Aesthete) where a shield above the bellcote arch bears the date 1821, although the building may have been constructed earlier. Nevertheless, it provides evidence that rusticity achieved nationwide popularity, with one fine example being found in County Laois.
The grotto at Ballyfin, County Laois probably dates from the third quarter of the 18th century, when the estate belonged to William Pole who lived there with his wife, Lady Sarah Moore. The couple were responsible for laying out the demesne in the newly-fashionable arcadian manner, not least by the addition of a large, man-made lake, close to which the grotto can be found. And like the lake, this structure was intended to look as though designed by nature, rather than a clever piece of artifice. The grotto lies below a mound on top of which once stood a long-since lost summer house, a suitable destination for a stroll from the main house. And while the latter would have demonstrated the civilised character of its owners, the grotto was, in parallel, intended to display their romantic sensibilities, influenced by Rousseau-esque notions of the noble savage. A roughly circular space in front of the little building is centred on a small pond, fed by a stream that trickles over stones down one side of the mound. The grotto occupies a generous portion of the circle, and takes the form of a primitive temple, with the substantial portico supported by large vertical boulders imitating columns, complete with uncut capitals. Beyond the portico are three openings, the middle one providing an entrance to the interior, one large room, the floor inlaid with pebbles around another circular pool. Above this rises the vaulted ceiling, a rustic version of that found in the Pantheon in Rome complete with central opening. In this instance, however, the view is not of open sky but of another giant stone seemingly hovering in space (although in fact it is supported by a number of other boulders not visible while inside the chamber). As already noted, the grotto at Ballyfin was envisaged to look as though nobody had been involved in its construction but instead had just happened, like a cave. But also highly popular during the same period were another kind of artificial building: the sham ruin.
The same romantic sensibility that led to the construction of Ballyfin’s grotto was also responsible for inspiring the ‘ruin’ seen at Killua Castle, County Westmeath. The castle is itself a sham, since when originally constructed by Sir Benjamin Chapman around 1784 this was a strictly classical house. It was Sir Benjamin’s brother and heir, Sir Thomas Chapman, who , after inheriting the estate in 1810 set about transforming the building into the castle seen today. However, perhaps he was inspired by work already undertaken within the demesne by his sibling. In 1800 Sir Benjamin had acquired some of the stonework from the medieval Franciscan friary at Multyfarnham, elsewhere in the same county, and used this to create a charming ‘ruin’ visible from the garden front of the house and occupying a mound overlooking the lake he had created some years earlier. He was by no means the only, or even the first, estate owner to recycle materials from another, older site. In the demesne at Heywood, County Laois Michael Frederick Trench had built an artificial ruined abbey, incorporating fine traceried windows said to be 15th century and to have been brought from the former Dominican friary at Aghaboe, some twelve miles away. The sham ruin at Killua is not intended to look like the remains of an old religious establishment (Sir Benjamin simultaneously employed other stonework to ‘embellish’ the old St. Lua’s Church, lying to the south-east of the demesne), but instead to suggest these were the surviving sections of an old castle or fortified residence. It comprises a two-storey, octagonal tower on octagonal plan with an adjacent wall constructed to look like the remains of a gable end of a building. Like the grotto at Ballyfin, it served no practical purpose other than to delight the eye and to provide a destination when residents of the main house and their guests undertook a walk. Thankfully in recent years both these follies have been restored by their respective owners so that they can continue to do the same today.