‘The lodge was built all over and each side of the gate, in two two-storey octagonal turrets joined by a Gothic arch. Four octagonal rooms in the turrets and an up and down room in the arch housed the Conarchy family, who were all, however, quite ordinary shapes.’
The above passage describes the gatelodge entrance to the fictional Kilskour Castle in Sheila Pim’s A Brush with Death, published in 1950. An ardent gardener who wrote extensively on the subject, Pim (1909-1995) also produced four detective novels (often with a strong horticultural theme) from the mid-1940s onwards, although A Brush with Death is more concerned with art and provides an amusing portrait of Dublin’s cultural world in the middle of the last century.
As for the lodge shown here, it was the original entrance to Heywood, County Laois and is thought to have been designed around 1810 by the estate’s then-owner Michael Frederick Trench, who was also responsible for erecting a number of Gothic follies in the grounds (for more on these, see https://theirishaesthete.com/2018/08/27/heywood/)
Heywood, County Laois has featured here before (See To Smooth the Lawn, To Decorate the Dale, May 12th 2014), the focus on that occasion being primarily the terraced gardens designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1906. However, both Lutyens and his client, Colonel William Hutcheson Poë, did not start with a virgin site. On the contrary, they were working within a landscape that had been carefully laid out more than a century earlier. The main outlines of the estate here were created by Michael Frederick Trench, son of the Rev. Frederick Trench. Of French extraction, the first of the family arrived in Ireland in 1631 and purchased the land and castle of Garbally, on the outskirts of Ballinasloe, County Galway: ultimately this line would become Earls of Clancarty. In the early 18th century, a younger son William Trench settled in Laois and acquired land there which was initially developed by his heir, the Rev. Frederick. The English antiquary Owen Brereton wrote of the property in 1763, describing it as ‘a sweet Habitation’ with ’24 Acres Walld round 10 feet high. The ground naturally in fine Slopes and Rising, large trees properly disperst, a River of very clear Water running through it. Pouring Cascades, upon which I counted near 100 Couple of rabbits & 100 of Brace of Hares which are in this Grounds…very extensive Views.’ Both the habitation and the grounds were enlarged by the Rev. Trench’s son Michael Frederick Trench who in 1773 built a new house which he named Heywood after his mother-in-law’s maiden name. A wealthy barrister and amateur architect, Trench is believed to have been primarily responsible for the building’s design although James Gandon may also have had a hand in the work. In 1771 a drawing was shown at the Society of Artists exhibition of the ‘Front of Mr Trench’s house in Ireland…from a design of Mr Gandon’s.’ On the other hand, Sir Charles Coote’s Statistical Survey of the Queen’s County (1801) states that the house was built after Trench’s own plan. A view of the building’s façade (c.1789 and attributed to James Malton) shows it to have been a neo-classical villa: this was engulfed by a much larger house in the late 19th century and the whole was destroyed by fire in 1950. We will probably never know.
If Michael Frederick Trench took an active part in the design of his country residence, the same is likely to have been true of landscaping the demesne which then followed. Heywood sits on high ground about a mile from the village of Ballinakill lying to the south-west. Trench laid out the grounds so that they could be enjoyed both from the windows of the house and during a drive or leisurely walk from the building down to Ballinakill. Large earthworks had to be undertaken in order to create a suitable landscape: today the Lutyens terraces (which sit directly below where formerly stood the house) rest behind large buttressed stone walls. When Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a year after Michael Frederick Trench’s death, he was able to call Heywood a ‘richly varied demesne ornamented with plantations and artificial sheets of water.’ In contrast to the classical severity of the building, the grounds were deeply romantic, and resolutely looking to the past. Setting the tone, the main entrance featured gates set between a pair of Gothic polygonal towers, their rooflines generously castellated. From here the drive winds to the first folly, a slim hexagonal gothic column of limestone column which serves both to commemorate Trench’s close friendship with his distant cousin and fellow-patron of the arts Andrew Caldwell, and also to mark the distance to various locations including Ballinakill and – somewhat further away – Dublin. The column is also close to the point where the first of three lakes rises: these follow close to the line of the drive, with a number of (now over-grown) rustic bridges allowing views down to the village. Moving close to the latter and in contrast to the gothic column one reaches a plain classical gazebo called Claude’s Seat, its name perhaps derived from Claude Lorrain whose pastoral scenes are evoked by the view across a lily-strewn lake. Directly behind the building is a small chamber with the remains of plaster stalagmites on its coved ceiling: this may have served as a hermitage.
Moving back towards the house, on a bluff above the drive and facing each other are two more substantial Gothic follies created by Michael Frederick Trench. One of these is a small sham castle with circular corner towers and castellated parapets. A triple lancet-arch window lights the modest interior, with a corresponding arched opening beneath. Directly opposite is can be seen what are intended to look like the ruins of a mediaeval church; the fine traceried window is said to be 15th century and to have been brought from the former Dominican friary at Aghaboe, some twelve miles away. Above both was another, more finished structure, a Gothic orangery built of red brick with limestone hood mouldings and obelisk pinnacles along the roofline. Today this is just a shell but other buildings that once could be seen in the Heywood demesne have gone altogether: for example, on a hillock to the south of the house stood an Ionic Temple of the Winds. For many years, this landscape and its diverse follies was neglected and allowed to fall into ruin, but of late much work has been done to clear back the vegetation and allow Trench’s original scheme be understood. As Sir Charles Coote wrote in 1801, ‘The demesne of Heywood deserves particular attention; except in the irregularity of ground, this charming spot had few natural advantages to recommend it to even the most experienced and judicious taste, which Mr Trench the proprietor must be acknowledged most eminently to possess. Nature has been so truly copied by him, that in none of the numerous elegant improvements is seen anything of artificial appearance. In each of the approaches the most delightful scenes are presented to the eye, and the senses of some voluptuaries would indeed be ravished with views of such exquisite beauty. The water, which appears from so many vistas, is all artificial and covered with wild fowl in the season. Several architectural ornaments of true classic merit are happily disposed in the most elegant taste; the ruin has all the appearance of gothic antiquity, and its view from several partial spots of the demesne has the best possible effect.’
Travellers in Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries seem rarely to have visited Laois, or Queen’s County as it was known until 1922. The preference was to head either south or north or west, by-passing the midlands with the result that references to this part of the country are not so easy to find. One suspects this continues to be the case, a pity since land-locked Laois has much to offer, not least the Lutyens-designed gardens at Heywood.
The main outlines of the estate here were created by Michael Frederick Trench, son of the Rev. Frederick Trench; one of those visitors to Ireland who did explore the area, English antiquary Owen Brereton, in 1763 wrote of the cleric’s property, describing it as ‘a sweet Habitation’ with ’24 Acres Walld round 10 feet high.’ Both the habitation and the grounds were enlarged by his son who in 1773 built a new house which he named Heywood after his mother-in-law’s maiden name. A barrister and amateur architect, Trench is believed to have been responsible for the building’s design, perhaps in consultation with James Gandon: Thomas J Mulvany’s biography of the latter (published 1846) states that in 1785 Trench ‘anxiously superintended’ the erection of the Rotunda Assembly Rooms in Dublin, being a member of the building committee. He has also been credited with the design of the two pavilions which terminated the colonnades on either side of the lying-in hospital.
At Heywood, Trench embarked on large-scale improvements to the surrounding parkland beginning with a gothic entrance gate and featuring various other decorative features, most notably a striking ruin on the adjacent hill, composed from elements of the mediaeval Dominican friary at Aghaboe some twelve miles away. When Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a year after Michael Frederick Trench’s death, he was able to call Heywood a ‘richly varied demesne ornamented with plantations and artificial sheets of water.’
When Michael Frederick Trench’s only son General Sir Frederick William Trench died in 1859, he left Heywood to the family of his sister Helena who in 1815 had married the euphoniously-named Sir Compton Pocklington Domvile. This couple’s granddaughter Mary Adelaide Domvile in turn became an heiress and in 1886 she married William Hutcheson Poë. There has always been some confusion about how to pronounce the family name, but William’s younger brother Edmund once explained, ‘I have been sat upon by women and held at arm’s length by men, but my name is pronounced p-o-a-y.’
Sons of a Queen’s County barrister, both men were educated at Dr Burney’s Academy in Gosport, near Portsmouth before joining the navy. Edmund rose to be promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1902, second in command of the Home Fleet the following year and Commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron in 1904. A year later he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station, then Commander-in-Chief, Cape of Good Hope Station in 1907 and Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet in 1910. Finally he became First and Principal Aide-de-Camp to George V in 1912, retiring two years afterwards.
William Hutcheson Poë meanwhile served in the Royal Marines and from 1884 was in Sudan, commanding a unit of the Camel Corps in the Relief of Khartoum in 1885 during which period he had a leg amputated. The following year he married Mary Adelaide Domvile and retired from service in 1888 when promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. The rest of his public life can be summarised as follows: in 1891 became High Sheriff for Queen’s County, and in 1893 for County Tyrone. He was a member of the Land Conference in 1904, was appointed a Governor of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1904 and created a baronet eight years later. In 1915 to 1916 he served in Egypt in the First World War, and from 1916 to 1919 with the Red Cross in France. From 1922 to 1925 he served as a Senator of the Irish Free State.
At Heywood Colonel Hutcheson Poë was responsible for substantial alterations to both house and grounds. With regard to the former, Sir Charles Coote in his Statistical Survey of Queen’s County (published 1801) having discussed Trench’s various enterprises on the estate says ‘The Mansion house has also been built after his own plan, and is of a curious, though not regular order of architecture, being a square building composed of four fronts, and, from the irregularity of the ground, on which it stands, presents at one front three stories, at another four, at the third five, and six at the fourth. The apartments are as commodious as could be wished for, and are considerably more extensive, than we should suppose from the outside view.’
In the 1890s this building was enlarged and almost engulfed by extensions to either side, designed by one of the period’s most indefatigable architects Sir Thomas Drew. Sadleir and Dickinson’s 1915 Georgian Mansions of Ireland describes the result as ‘a large building, embodying extensive recent additions, and has been in fact so completely re-edified that one room only retains its entire Georgian character. This is the large and well proportioned dining-room, a singularly handsome apartment, and one of the finest examples of the Adam style in this country…the walls are covered with plaster panels and festoons, which, like the ornament of the over-doors, are very delicately modelled. The mantel, purchased by the present owner in London, exhibits Adam decoration with wedgwood plaques, and there is a steel grate…A series of Minerva heads in the frieze conceal the electric light bulbs, this ingenious device obviating the introduction of unsightly electroliers. In the adjoining drawing-room, which also retains some Georgian features, are a number of valuable pictures, including the fine full-length of John Musters, of Colwick, in Nottinghamshire, by Sir Joshua Reynolds…’ A series of photographs taken by A.E. Henson in 1917 and published in Country Life two years later testify to Colonel Hutcheson Poë’s discerning taste as a collector of pictures and furniture, even if not of architecture.
Outside also Colonel Hutcheson Poë set about leaving his mark. The house at Heywood was built at the top of a south-west facing ridge from which the ground drops steeply to a lake out of which runs a stream in turn feeding two further lakes. As well as being a successful army man, Sir Frederick William Trench was a talented artist (just as his father was an amateur architect), and in 1818 he produced several drawings of the demesne from which lithographs were produced; these give an excellent idea of how the view swept away from the house across water and trees towards distant mountains, the very incarnation of the romantic landscape.
Nevertheless in 1906 Hutcheson Poë commissioned Edwin Lutyens to come up with a design for gardens in the vicinity of the house, occupying the area to the immediate south, east and west. As has already been explained, this part of the parkland is on a slope, and so the first and most important task was to build a massice retaining wall with buttressing to protect the house above from any risk of slippage. Thereafter the main features of the scheme begin with a pair of central terraces relatively uncluttered so as not to obscure views from the building; other than flagged walks and grass lawns, the most notable feature here is a pair of columns topped with stone balls and carrying carved milestones. Presumably Lutyens recycled these from elsewhere, as he did a series of Ionic columns which were once part of a Temple of the Winds erected by Michael Frederick Trench elsewhere in the grounds. The columns can now be seen in a pergola walk which Lutyens constructed to the west of the main terrace and where they support a line of oak beams. This walk, from which there is a sharp descent to the lake, is otherwise composed of rough-hewn stone, with an open prospect at its southern end and an apsidal niche at the northern: the latter once held a copy of the Capitoline Venus but now contains a more respectably clothed figure.
Colonel Hutcheson Poë was not an easy client and Lutyens’ letters indicate his time at Heywood was rather stressful. In February 1910, for example, he wrote to his wife, ‘Colonel Poë, you know, has a wooden leg and he sits on a chair and watches the men lay stones – stone by stone – and finds endless fault. I couldn’t stand it.’ Two years later he wrote again, ‘The gardens promise well, but he is so cross to his workmen, to me and to all under him, and his wife, who is very rich, is left alone and ignored almost. At least she goes her own way, ignores as much as she is ignored.’
On an earlier occasion Lutyens had announced that the colonel’s ‘cross period has damaged the garden as there is, I think, evidence in my work of my attitude or despondency towards him.’ There is in fact no evidence of the sort apparent, particularly not in the marvellous elliptical sunken garden which is Lutyens’ greatest legacy at Heywood. The approach to this was most likely intended to have been via a short sequence of yew enclosed spaces which lead to a curved flight of stone steps bringing the visitor right into the garden. Today however, the more customary point of access is from the main terrace, passing tall piers to a pleached lime walk. Here a low stone wall to the south offers open views of the countryside, the wall to the north being higher and carrying a series of cut stone niches: originally these contained lead busts but they are now filled with stone urns. At the end of this walk, wrought iron gates provide access to the sunken garden, its centre occupied by a large pond once fed by spouting bronze tortoises and holding a basin formerly topped by another piece of sculpture. At the easternmost point of the sunken garden is a slender, single-room pavilion, the rear wall of which contains four Ionic capitals set into the rough stone and said to have come from the 18th century Irish House of Commons designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (for more about this discovery, see Jane Meredith’s article on the subject in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 2001, Vol. 17).
Like so many other Irish country houses and estates, Heywood experienced mixed fortunes in the last century. After its owner’s death in 1934, the house stood empty and then the Land Commission moved in to divide up the property. In 1941 the house and surrounding 160 acres was acquired by members of the Salesian religious order who originally used the place as a novitiate. Unfortunately in 1950 the house was badly damaged by fire, after which a decision was taken to demolish it; a new building was erected on a site to the north-east adjacent to the former stable yard. This became a school run by the Salesians but since 1990 has been a community school. Three years later the Lutyens gardens were transferred to state ownership and they have since been the responsibility of the Office of Public Works.
Visiting Heywood today is a curious experience. On the one hand, it is wonderful that Lutyens’ work here has been preserved, on the other it is difficult properly to appreciate his vision without the presence of the house for which the gardens were intended to provide a setting: the context for which they were created has gone (see the plan below for a better understanding of this). And the 18th century parkland devised by Michael Frederick Trench is even harder to envisage since it has received very little attention, and some of it has been altogether lost. The defiant ugliness of the school buildings also plays its part in suppressing any impulse towards romanticism. Conversely, once properly inside the gardens equivocation slips away, and the genius of Lutyens takes over. It is, as I say, a curious experience but with the accompaniment of a little imagination by no means an unpleasant one.
With thanks to Máirtín D’Alton for his advice and information.