Ascending the Social Ladder

When the first edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (then known as ‘Burke’s Commoners’) appeared in 1833 it did not include an entry for the Alexanders of Milford, County Carlow. This must have been a matter of some disappointment to the family, as was their absence in subsequent editions until finally in 1871 when they were featured, albeit briefly. The history of the Alexanders is a tale of social ascendancy initially dependent on wealth, and the retention of the former even when the latter had gone. The founder of the dynasty, John Alexander, had modest origins but what he lacked in pedigree was amply compensated by entrepreneurial flair, and resulted in his acquisition of an estate sufficiently substantial for later generations to judge themselves members of the landed gentry. Late in life his heir, also called John Alexander (as remained the case with successive generations) wrote ‘There is not any subject so difficult to me as genealogy. I am very much behind in my knowledge of it as far as relates to my family. I have been endeavouring to grasp some particulars for your perusal, my object being to elicit the truth and to place my family in their right position.’ Likewise he had earlier insisted, ‘’I am not a “retired” merchant, never having served my time to any business, and during the years I was proprietor of the mills on this property, I took almost no part in the working of them’. All of which indicates a desire to distance himself from the mercantile activities which had formed the basis of the family fortune, and to ally himself with a class unsullied by sordid commercial transactions.





The first Alexanders arrived in Ireland as settlers from Scotland in the early 17th century, settling in the Limavady area. In the late 1750s John Alexander, a younger son, moved to Belfast where he became a successful merchant and land agent for the Earl of Donegall before also going into the milling business. His eldest son, likewise called John, moved to County Carlow in 1784 with the intention of becoming involved in the last profession and there joined forces with a wealthy Roman Catholic corn merchant and miller called James Conolly. Already Carlow had become one of the country’s principal area’s for corn production: between 1769 and 1784 the amount of corn sent there to Dublin grew from just 78 stone to 382,953 stone, an astonishing increase. This growth was driven by entrepreneurial businessmen like Conolly and young John Alexander. The former already owned a mill on the river Barrow a few miles from Carlow town, in a townland called Ballygowan, and this was the business John Alexander joined and expanded, notably after 1790 when at the age of 26 he took over direct responsibility for its management. The result was further rapid growth, not least thanks to the construction of additional and larger milling buildings on the site, by then given the name it has carried ever since, Milford. Within three years the mill had become County Carlow’s largest supplier of flour to the capital. In addition, Alexander embarked on a second enterprise on the same site: the production of malt. To the east of the flour mill, he constructed Ireland’s largest and most powerful malthouse, thereby establishing his predominance in a second field. During this period of expansion, Alexander lived in a modest single-storey, three-roomed thatched dwelling adjacent to the mills. However, in 1799 it was time for him to build a residence befitting his status as a wealthy man.





Now for sale for the first time since built, Milford House appears to have been designed by its first occupant, mill owner John Alexander who married not long after construction was complete and then gradually acquired an estate of more than 2,000 acres. Facing west, the core of the building is of five bays and two storeys over basement, with a single-storey extension to the north added around 1813. As testament to Alexander’s want of social pretensions, the facade is unadorned other than a granite portico with four Ionic columns. Inside there is a similar want of ostentation, a generous entrance hall leading to the library at the front and drawing and dining rooms to the rear, and accordingly facing east. A staircase opening to the north of the hall leads to a first-floor lobby from which can be accessed six bedrooms. Since its construction, the house has undergone relatively little modification, the most immediately obvious being the insertion of plate glass in the ground-floor windows: this dates from the mid-1890s when John Alexander III married. It was during the same period that Milford benefitted from electrification: the former oat mill was then reconfigured as a hydro-electricity generating station, which led to nearby Carlow town being the first urban centre in Ireland or Britain to enjoy electric street lighting. Meanwhile the entrance hall had been re-decorated in 1883 with the William Morris ‘Pomegranate’ wallpaper still in place. The only other major intervention was the replacement of the main reception rooms’ chimneypieces. The originals were of plain Kilkenny marble but in the mid-1940s they were removed by Olive Alexander (wife of John Alexander IV) who bought that in the library when the contents of nearby and now-ruinous Clogrennane were being auctioned. Those today in the drawing and dining rooms appear to have been acquired around the same period in Dublin. However, Milford essentially retains its original character and is thus a record of how a mercantile family thrived and used the construction of a country house to assist its transformation into landed gentry.

With thanks to Shay Kinsella whose 2015 doctoral thesis on Milford and the Alexanders was of invaluable assistance.
Milford is currently for sale through Knight Frank (http://www.knightfrank.ie/properties/residential/for-sale/milford-county-carlow/cho180066)

Well Red


It is now half a century since Castletown, County Kildare opened to the public. Constructed during the 1720s as one of our earliest and still greatest extant country houses, the building might have been lost had it not been for the plucky vision of the Hon Desmond Guinness in purchasing Castletown, and then the sterling work of the Irish Georgian Society in undertaking restoration work so that it could welcome visitors. Since 1994 Castletown has been in state ownership and the Office of Public Works, together with the Castletown Foundation, supports an ongoing programme of further improvements to house and contents.



One of the latest projects undertaken inside Castletown has been the conservation of the Red Drawing Room, part of an enfilade on the northside of the ground floor. The design of this space dates from the second half of the 1760s when much work was being undertaken in the house by Tom and Lady Louisa Conolly but the walls were hung in crimson hand-woven damask probably in the late 1860s/early 1870s. An early decision was made not to replace this much-weathered material but to preserve it in situ, carrying out necessary repairs while leaving evidence of age and wear-and-tear. This work is now complete and the room returned to inspection by visitors who will be able to admire a rehang of pictures and other additions to the decorative scheme, not least new curtains of damask woven to match that on the walls. An essay on the Red Drawing Room’s conservation by Christopher Moore is included in Volume XX of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal which has just been published.

A Master Carver


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 Glory of the House


In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Samuel Lewis wrote that the ‘noble mansion’ at Newbridge, County Dublin was said to hold ‘several valuable paintings by the old masters, which were collected on the continent by the Rev M. Pilkington, author of the Dictionary of Painters, who was vicar of this parish; the drawing room contains several of the paintings described by him.’ The cleric mentioned here was Matthew Pilkington, born in King’s County (now Offaly) in 1701 and ordained a deacon in the Church of Ireland twenty-two years later. His was likely not a very profound vocation, but a position in the established church offered career advantages of which he intended to take advantage. Initially all went well. In 1725 he married the well-connected Laetitia van Lewen, as diminutive – but also as witty – as her husband, and the couple became friends with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Patrick Delany. Through the former Pilkington secured the position of Chaplain to the London Mayor of London and so moved to the other side of the Irish Sea. However in London he antagonized potential supporters and was imprisoned two years later. On returning to Dublin, he then became estranged from his wife and the couple was eventually and scandalously divorced in 1737: just over a decade later Laetitia Pilkington published her entertaining memoirs, from which her former husband emerges in a poor light. Ultimately he recovered his social position thanks to the patronage of Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin who offered Pilkington the living of Donabate and Portraine next to Cobbe’s newly completed seat at Newbridge. As mentioned by Lewis, it is believed that Pilkington travelled to mainland Europe to buy paintings for the house and that this in turn would have informed the work by which he is remembered: The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters, the first such book published in English. It appeared in 1770, four years before the author’s death.




The greater part of Newbridge was built between 1747 and 1752 to the designs of Scottish-born architect James Gibbs, his only known work in Ireland. The following decade a large drawing room was added to the rear of the house. In 1755 Archbishop Cobbe’s son and heir Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Beresford, youngest daughter of the first Earl of Tyrone, and sister of the first Marquess of Waterford, and space was needed for the young couple and the art collection being assembled for the family by Matthew Pilkington. The architect on this occasion was a local man, George Semple who had already overseen the erection of Newbridge. Semple initially proposed adding a pair of wings to the south-facing façade but in the end the decision was taken to construct a single large drawing room/picture gallery to the rear of the house, taking the space previously occupied by a pair of small offices. As has been noted by Julius Bryant, to preserve homogeneity of style within the building Semple used Gibbs’ 1728 Book of Architecture as a source for the design of doorcases and chimney pieces, the former immediately apparent at the entrance to the room from the adjacent antechamber. Running some 45 feet in length, the space has a ceiling featuring ‘a sea of scrolling leaves and floral garlands encircled by dragons and birds fighting over baskets of fruit.’ This work is believed to have been undertaken by stuccodore Richard Williams, a pupil of Robert West: the Newbridge accounts for this period include seven payments to ‘Williams ye stucco man.’




A drawing of the Newbridge drawing room dated c.1840 and attributed to Frances Cobbe shows the room as it looked following a refurbishment of the space two decades earlier. In 1821 payments for furniture were made to Woods & Son, and to Mack, Williams & Gibton of Dublin, who were also paid for curtains in 1828. The carpet, by Beck & Co. of Bath was supplied in March 1823 for £64 and 18 shillings, while the crimson flock wallpaper and matching border came from the Dublin firm of Patrick Boylan. The present arrangement of paintings, the greater part of them collected during the previous century by Archbishop Cobbe and his son and daughter-in-law, dates from the same period. Towards the end of the 19th century, Frances Cobbe called the drawing room ‘the glory of the house. In it the happiest hours of my life were passed.’ She remembered the room as assembled by her parents. Some of the collection had been sold in Dublin in 1812, and in 1839 two key paintings, by Hobbema and Dughet, were sold to pay to fund the construction of some 80 estate workers’ cottages. In November of that year, then owner Charles Cobbe (father of Frances) wrote in his diary, ‘I have filled up the vacancies on my walls occasioned by the loss of the two pictures which have been sold, and I felt some satisfaction in thinking that my room (by the new arrangement) looks even more furnished than before.’ Such is still the case today. In 1985 Newbridge passed into the hands of the local authority, now Fingal County Council, which has been responsible for house and estate ever since. However, Alec Cobbe artist, designer and musical instrument collector, who grew up in the house continues to be devoted to the building. He has valiantly undertaken successive projects to preserve and conserve the interiors, not least the drawing room. As a result today, as noted by Bryant, this gorgeous space today ‘provides a rate opportunity to study an Irish collection in its historic context.’

Thinking Big


The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, otherwise known as the Knights Templar was one of the Christian military orders established in Europe during the period of the Crusades, its ostensible function being to protect pilgrims visiting sacred sites in the Middle East. Established at the start of the 12th century, the order quickly grew in prestige, power and wealth, and established a presence in Ireland following the arrival of the Normans here. It soon acquired extensive estates in the country, although these were predominantly in the east and south, where Norman power was most effective. The Templars’ most westerly settlement was some twelve miles south of the port of Sligo where they built a castle. As is well known, at the start of the 14th century, Philip the Fair of France, who was by then heavily indebted to the Knights Templar, resolved to destroy their power – and therefore their financial hold on him – by taking advantage of the papacy then being resident in Avignon. Accordingly he leveled a series of charges against the order, including idolatry and homosexuality, which led to pope Clement V dissolving the Templars in 1312. Everywhere they had held land it then passed into the hands the relevant secular authority. In Ireland, while ostensibly the crown or another chivalric order benefitted from this unexpected property windfall, in practice a dominant local family was often able to seize control of the territory. This happened in County Sligo where the land formerly owned by the Knights Templar came into the hands of the O’Haras. They built a new castle here around 1360. In the 16th century the same lands, along with much more beside, were acquired by John Crofton, who had come here in 1565 with Sir Henry Sidney following the latter’s appointment as Lord Deputy of Ireland.





In 1665 Mary Crofton, great-granddaughter of John Crofton, married George Perceval, whose family had likewise come to have large property interests in Ireland. He was a younger son, but his wife Mary an heiress and so the estate once owned by the Knights Templar passed to the couple’s descendants who live there still. Originally they lived in the old castle which had been converted into a domestic residence in 1627, although then besieged and badly damaged in 1641. Repairs undertaken and extensions added, it served as a dwelling house for the Percevals over the next century. Then in the 1760s a new house was erected close by, the servants occupying the former residence. In 1825 Lt-Col. Alexander Perceval decided to embark on building afresh, this time on higher ground and in smart neo-classical taste. The architect responsible unknown, it forms the core of the present Temple House. The opening decades of the 19th century saw extensive building and rebuilding of country houses in Ireland, their owners having little idea of the catastrophe that was shortly to befall the country. During the Great Famine of the 1840s, the Percevals did their best to assist tenants on the Temple estate, the colonel’s wife Jane dying in January 1847 of ‘famine fever’ but not before leaving instructions ‘not to neglect the tenant families between my death and my funeral.’ Like so many other landowners, the Percevals were effectively ruined in the aftermath of the famine, and following the colonel’s death in December 1848 they were obliged to put the Temple estate up for sale.





The new owners of Temple, unlike their predecessors, showed little interest in the welfare of the tenants and embarked on a policy of evictions and land clearance. However, Alexander Perceval, youngest son of the old colonel, had made his fortune in the Far East, rising to become Taipan of Jardine Matheson and first chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce. In the early 1860s he bought back the Temple estate where he not only paid for a number of evicted families to return to their former homes, but also decided to enlarge the house built by his father. Three times the size of what it had been before, the building was designed by the London firm of Johnstone & Jeanes (and their only Irish commission) and looks not unlike a splendid gentleman’s club, its rooms all with high ceilings and bright interiors lit by expanses of plate glass windows. At the centre of the building rises a palatial staircase leading to equally vast bedrooms (one of which is known as the ‘half acre’). The exterior was all clad in crisply cut limestone, the entrance moved from the east to the north front where access is via an impressive porte-cochère. Temple House exudes abundant confidence and authority, and indicates that Alexander Perceval expected to enjoy his family estate for many years. It was not to be: in 1866 he caught sunstroke while fishing in the lake in front of the house and died aged 44, leaving a widow and young family. Despite this and subsequent setbacks – not least the death of the next male heir only two years after the birth of his son – the family managed to hold onto the regained estate and live there still. Having inherited their forebear’s entrepreneurial skills, the present generation of Percevals run a successful business providing country house accommodation at Temple House.


For more information on Temple House, see http://www.templehouse.ie

Slightly Less Mysterious

Kilmanahan Castle, County Waterford was discussed here early last year (Shrouded in Mystery, January 9th 2017). Built on the banks of the river Suir almost directly across from Knocklofty, County Tipperary the house has at its core a mediaeval castle erected by the FitzGeralds. In the late 16th century the land on which it stood passed to Sir Edward Fitton, and then a few decades later to Sir James Gough, before changing hands again in 1678 when acquired by Godfrey Greene. His descendants remained there until the mid-19th century when the Kilmanahan estate was sold through the Encumbered Estates Court. By the start of the last century it had been bought by the Earls of Donoughmore whose main residence was the aforementioned Knocklofty. As their fortunes declined, so too it seems did those of Kilmanahan.






In June 1984 Suzy Roeder, an American visitor to this country, stayed in the area and went to look at Kilmanahan with her hosts. While there she took the photographs shown today, which give an idea of what the place looked like more than thirty years ago: at the time, it seems, the interior of the castle was being used to store cattle: they were in occupation of the courtyard at the centre of the building. This was by no means an unusual fate for such properties. Local farmers would buy the land without having an interest in any structures then standing and accordingly put them to practical use.





What makes these photographs especially interesting are the views they offer of the interior of Kilmanahan Castle. Those portions of the building that were accessible still retained at least some of their original decoration and show that the Tudor-Gothic style prevailed here as in so many other similar properties refurbished in the decades before the Great Famine. At the same time, there are elements of earlier classical plasterwork which also lingered (note the great arched window mid-way up the since-lost staircase), demonstrating that Kilmanahan’s rooms had been overhauled at some point in the 18th century. Impossible to say what, if anything, remains today. Although the castle still stands, one suspects that in the intervening thirty-four years the elements have taken further toll and the interiors are still-further stripped. 


With thanks to Suzy Roeder for sharing these images. 

In Limbo


The house at Durrow Abbey, County Offaly has a long and frequently unhappy history. As its name implies, this was originally a religious settlement (for more on which, see On the Plain of Oaks, February 2nd 2015). However in the 16th century and following the dissolution of the monasteries, the lands on which it stood were leased to Nicholas Herbert at a rent of £10 per annum payable to the Crown and military service when required. Herbert was granted a second lease in 1574 on condition that he built two stone fortresses on the site within four years. The Herberts remained in residence here until the death without male heirs of Sir George Herbert, third baronet, in 1712. The estate was then inherited by Sir George’s sister Frances, married to a Major Patrick Fox: it was Mrs Fox who rebuilt the old adjacent church that remains today. The Foxes having no direct heirs, Durrow was then inherited by Philip Rawson Stepney and eventually by Herbert Rawson Stepney who, three years before his death in 1818 sold the estate to John Toler, first Lord Norbury. It would appear that during the time of the Stepneys that a new residence was built at Durrow: a surviving drawing made by architect William Murray in September 1829 shows the building – then called Durrow Park – to have been a plain classical structure of three storeys and seven bays, centred on a groundfloor doorcase with portico. Already at that date plans were being made for something more distinctive to be constructed on the site, but ultimately it was Norbury’s son who embarked on this enterprise. here…




Politician and lawyer, John Toler enjoyed a highly successful career at the bar despite being almost universally reviled for his ability to combine corruption with incompetence. He served as Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas for twenty-seven years (1800-1827) during which time he became known as the ‘Hanging Judge’ such was his propensity to prescribe the death sentence and only resigned at the age of 82 when offered an earldom and an annual pension of more than £3,000. Dying in 1831 he was succeeded by his son Hector John Graham-Toler, second Earl of Norbury who some years later decided to embark of a comprehensive redevelopment of the house: Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) mentions that ‘his lordship is erecting a spacious mansion in the ancient style.’ Two years later, in January 1839, Lord Norbury was shot dead by an unknown assailant while out riding: no one was ever brought to court (despite a reward being offered of £5,000 and 100 acres) but it seems likely the person responsible was a tenant recently evicted from a holding on the estate.
The widowed Lady Norbury pressed on with her late husband’s plans to rebuild Durrow and work continued there until 1843 when a fire broke out. A contemporary account in The Nation recorded that ‘The new building which was not completed, joined the old one, which it was intended to adopt as a wing by facing it with stone; in this portion all the valuable furniture was stored and this part of the extensive building is totally destroyed.’ At some later date the new building was completed, and thereafter owned by successive generations of the Graham-Toler family until the 1940s.




Completed around 1860, Durrow Abbey House’s architect is unknown. Designed in the popular Jacobean Revival style, the building was originally of three storeys over a sunken basement with high gable-end windows, raised chimney stacks and corner turrets, the whole in cut limestone. Behind the main block runs a long service wing opening onto a sunken courtyard. At one stage, a large porte-cochere stood in front of the main entrance. This survived until May 1923 when the house was burnt during the Civil War. It was subsequently rebuilt three years later with the top storey and porte-cochere removed, and with simplified Arts and Crafts interiors designed by Dublin architect Ralph Henry Byrne. Following the sale of the property by the Graham-Tolers, Durrow was owned first by the Slazenger family (who later became owners of Powerscourt, County Wicklow) and then the Williams family (who owned the local whiskey distillery). Subsequent owners proposed to change use of the property from private residence to hotel and golf resort as part of a €170 million scheme that would also have included several hundred houses and apartments. This plan was comprehensively rejected by the planning authorities, not least because of the importance of the immediately adjacent medieval site. Durrow languished in uncertainty until 2003 when the Irish State paid in the region of €3.5 million to acquire the place and surrounding 80-odd acres.




In May 2007 a 99-year lease on the main house was agreed by Dick Roche, then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and a charitable organisation called Arts for Peace Foundation. Incorporated in August 2004, Arts for Peace ‘provides therapeutic peace education programmes for children affected by conflict.’ Paying an annual peppercorn rent of €10, the organisation used the house as a respite centre for groups of young people from diverse places around the world. Meanwhile the Office of Public Works carried out necessary work on the old church and moved a mid-ninth century High Cross moved indoors. All seemed well for the future of the entire site until five years ago when Arts for Peace stopped using the main house for its projects. In December 2016 The Times reported that a month before the charity and its founder Elizabeth Garrahy had filed a High Court action against the Office of Public Works and the Irish State seeking damages for alleged breach of contract. The charity alleged the OPW had committed to providing €500,000 and then €250,000 for repair work, but then failed to provide the funding. The OPW in turn accused the charity of failing to carry out necessary repairs and maintenance of the property according to the terms of its lease. It transpires this is why the building has not been occupied or used since 2013: for the past five years the OPQ and Arts for Peace have been at war. Although this matter ought to be of widespread interest (not least because of the potential financial implications for the Irish taxpayer), it seems the only public representative to express concern has been Carlow-Kilkenny TD John McGuinness. He has regularly raised the question of Durrow Abbey in Dáil Éireann, and elsewhere. The last time Deputy McGuinness did so was two months ago on February 15th at a meeting of the Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform (of which Mr McGuinness is chair) attended by Kevin Moran, current Minister of State for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief. In the course of a discussion on the unresolved problems at Durrow Abbey, Mr McGuinness stated, ‘I firmly believe that with an effort, with both sides sitting down without being tied by legal process and without prejudice, they could reach a resolution, rather than spend unnecessary funds and scarce resources on a case when in my opinion the Arts for Peace Foundation has a good case. Going to court is a step beyond common sense in my opinion in this instance.’
The state, which is to say the Irish citizenry, has spent a considerable amount of money acquiring and restoring portions of the historic Durrow Abbey site and, as was announced at the end of last year, the state intends to spend more in the near future making the property more accessible to visitors. However at the same time a substantial group of buildings sits empty and neglected: tellingly, in May/June 2016, despite the ongoing dispute, the OPW undertook emergency remedial works to prevent water ingress to the house). This argument is surely capable of resolution, but the longer it takes to find agreement, the greater the cost. A speedy settlement is obviously advantageous. Until this happens the house at the centre of the estate and of the legal wrangle remains in a state of limbo. This is a situation that benefits no one.